When my friend Ben told me at the beginning of this year that his wedding was going to be near Cape Town in South Africa, the first thing I did was to look for some cycling route in the Western Cape. I couldn’t think of a better incentive to go on another bike adventure in a country I hadn’t been to before…
South Africa doesn’t always come across as the safest place to visit and the couple of hours I spent online showed that it is certainly not the most popular cycling destination. But the scenery looked superb and the local cyclists I exchanged emails with begged me to prove the country’s reputation wrong. On top of that I found out that South African Airways, which has direct flights from Munich, gives you an extra 23 kg of luggage allowance for sport equipments. How could I resist? So I booked my flights and 6 months later landed at the Cape Town International Airport with my Surly Troll and my panniers. South Africa being on the same time zone as Europe, one good night sleep was enough to recharge my batteries after the long 12h journey and I was able to start spinning those wheels the day after arriving. Angela would be joining me for the wedding in 15 days, so there was not time to waist and a lot of wonderful areas to explore.
The first part of the journey took me from Gordon’s Bay to Swellendam via Elim, L’Agulhas and De Hoop National Park. In Swellendam I jumped on a bus to Knysna, where I took a day off before cycling back to George over the Seven Passes Road.
The scenery along the R44 coastal road looked stunning right off the bat. It took me over 2h to cycle the first 10km, just because I kept stopping for photos. The traffic was quite dense (it was a Sunday) but a wide shoulder kept me safe most of the way to Hermanus.
Jackass penguin colony in Stony Point near Betty’s Bay. They are the only penguins of their kind to breed along the African Coast. A couple of hours earlier, while cycling through Pringle Bay, a man in a wet suit started chatting to me (it turns out South Africans do that a lot). I thought he was a surfer but he had in fact just been spearfishing. He hadn’t caught anything and looked rather cold, but he recounted how he had encountered a group of seals while underwater. He interrupted our friendly conversion twice, once to point his finger to a whale swimming on the surface of the water in the distance and a second time to watch a tortoise crossing the road behind us. The wildlife was one aspect of the trip I had been looking forward to the most, so seeing all those animals on my first day on the bike was unbelievable…
South Africans are so amazingly friendly, but once behind the driving wheel only a few of them seem to know how to deal with cyclists on the road. Especially when the said road does not have a shoulder. This stretch between Stanford and Gansbaai was one of them: cars would overtake me despite the oncoming traffic, leaving just a few centimeter of space between us. I even found myself in a situation where one car was overtaking the car that was overtaking me. It reminded me of driving on polish roads.
By the time I had reached the turn-off to Elim, the knee pain had become so strong that I could hardly press on my pedal. As I stood at the junction, considering my options, these 2 ladies stopped their pickup beside me and asked if I need any help. We talked for a couple of minutes and then out of the blue they invited me to camp on their farm. Lada (left) and Yvonne (middle) decided to move in together into Lada’s house after their husbands passed away. Lada is now renting out her farmland to other farmers. We spent a wonderful evening together, talking about our lives in Europe and South Africa, while eating a delicious bobotie (the South African equivalent of a shepherd’s pie) that Lada had prepared especially for me.
The scenery on my way to Elim. Lada and Yvonne made me feel so welcome that I could have easily spent a whole week with them at the farm. I felt really sad to leave the next day, but unfortunately if I wanted to see all the places I had planned to I had to get moving. My knee felt better but was still hurting, so I decided to cycle slowly.
Cottages and their thatched roofs in Elim. The picturesque little village in the middle of the Agulhas Plain was established back in 1824 by German Moravian missionaries. The friendly man who let me have a look inside the church told me that Elim’s thatchers are famous for their craftsmanship and are called to build roofs all around the world.
Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the African Continent and the official dividing line between the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. That night I camped in an almost empty backpackers hostel where the only other two guests were two young lads from Canada. As luck would have it, they had just finished their physiotherapy studies so I asked them to have a look at my knee. Their diagnosis gave me hope: there was no inflammation, so if I stretched everyday before and after cycling and regularly applied ice on the knee, the pain should eventually go away…
The road to De Hoop Nature Reserve and its towering sand dunes in the distance. Upon arrival in the reserve’s camp site I realised that the small mesh bag with all my cutlery was missing. I had obviously forgotten to put it back in my panniers after my lunch break on the roadside. It meant I was now without my Swiss army knife, my lighter and other bits and bobs. Luckily I had packed my spork in my handlebar bag. That night I went over to see my neighbours and ask if I could borrow a tin opener. They were a friendly German speaking couple from Namibia who I had met at the reserve’s main office. They did have a can opener but told me that I would not need it that night, because they had cooked too much food and wanted me to stay for dinner. Once again I spent a lovely evening with them, by the end of which they had invited me to come and visit them in Namibia. Encounters like these are the reason why I love traveling.
At first I didn’t think I would see them, but once I focused my gaze on the ocean I realised they were everywhere. Some of them just logging on the surface, other breaching out of the water in huge splashes or just lobtailing. It was a wonderful sight and I spent hours just sitting on the white sand taking it all in.
The gravel road between De Hoop and Swellendam. After leaving De Hoop and getting back on the main road, I decided to cycle back the way I had come the day before, in the hope of finding the missing mesh bag. Of course I didn’t find it and what’s more, the time I had just lost to complete that 25km detour meant that I would not make it to Swellendam that evening.
Wild camping in the Western Cape isn’t as straight forward as in other countries I have cycled in, simply because all the fields are fenced off, generally with electrical wires. I spent almost 2 hours that evening looking for an appropriate spot to set up my tent. On the plus side it allowed me to take some great photos of the scenery during the magical hour, when everything around you is illuminated by the soft orange sun light. I eventually found nice piece of grass behind an abandoned church and as I was about to open the gate I noticed a pick-up arriving. I flagged down the driver and asked him if I could camp on his farm. He agreed and helped me load my bike and panniers in the back. When I explained that I was running late and therefore hadn’t been able to make it to Swellendam that evening (which was another 25 km north), he didn’t hesitate for a second and told me he would take me there right away, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. Another amazing act of South African generosity. During our very friendly conversation I found out that he was in charge of the sheep on the farm and apparently totally loved it. His dream was to go to New Zealand to get more farming experience before coming back to South Africa and starting his own farming business. Oh and his dad had played rugby for Cognac in France.
One of the two Heads in Knysna. The two headlands mark the end of the Knysna lagoon before the estuary opens to the ocean. The strong and unpredictable currents passing through the Heads have caused many a ship to crash and sink.
Cycling the Seven Passes Road between Knysna and George. It was hard work and little reward, the passes never really high enough to get a good view of the surrounding scenery. By the time I arrived in George I was exhausted and my knee had started hurting again. But George marked the end of my journey along the coast and I was really looking forward to heading north into the mountains and the Klein Karoo.
To be continued…