Friday, 1 April 2011

Ups and Downs - emotionally and geographically

I must admit to being a bit emotional when I left Cape Town on Saturday morning. I was, obviously, very excited and thrilled to be on the road but I was also a little scared I guess. But why? This wasn't anything new, I had just ridden from Alaska to Panama. But as I rode along I realised that it was FOUR whole months since I'd actually really been on my own. FOUR months since I'd ridden without Tracy on the back and now I was on my own again. That's why I was a little apprehensive and, to be honest, lonely.

Knowing that made me feel better and I enjoyed the easy ride along N2 towards Mossel Bay. I got there in the early afternoon, found the caravan park by the sea and pitched my tent. Again, as I put up my new tent for the first time (I'd donated my old, leaky tent to the Turtle people in Baja as I wasn't going to carry a tent through Central America) I realised that it had been 5 months since I'd actually camped. The last time was just north on Los Angeles in October. Although this Africa section is really just a continuation of thedomwayround it feels like I'm starting a whole new adventure. I got that feeling I'd had when I'd left for Alaska. That feeling of, “What am I doing? Whatever made me think I could do this? This is stupid I should pack up and go home.” My first night under canvass in Africa was a slightly depressing and unhappy one.

My first camp in Africa. (Nice long African shadows)
The following day, feeling better (Mornings are always great. That anticipation of the day ahead, anything could happen and nothing has gone wrong yet, kind of feeling) I rode “The Garden Route”. Now admittedly I didn't stop at any of the surfing beaches or take any side trips so I may have missed the best parts of the Garden Route but I have to say it was just a little disappointing. It is a lovely part of the country, very green and rural with lots and lots of sandy beaches and some great surfing I'm told. And it was a great day but maybe it had been oversold. It seems that after Kruger National Park and Cape Town the garden route is THE thing to do when in South Africa, and perhaps I was expecting too much.

At the end of a long day (400 miles) I stopped in Hogsback north of East London. Renowned as the place a very young JRR Tolkein came when he lived in Bloemfontein the Lonely Planet waxed lyrical about the place. A veritable Hobbiton. I camped at a place called “Away with the faeries” and some people there certainly seemed to be. Whilst I was setting up camp a guy came to say hello and said, “Ah, you're thedomwayround, I've been following your blog.” Always good to meet the readers!

Ah, a nice quiet campsite with the Hobbits

Then a Nomad truck turns up - seemingly on a drinking tour.

Glen is a South African rider who lies nearby and was just up for the weekend. We had a good long chat in the bar and he told me I must do the Sani Pass. The famous snakelike pass that goes from South Africa into Lesotho. He talked me into it and in the morning I headed of for the Sani Lodge to see what all the fuss was about.

That's Lesotho up ahead

Now I know I went on about lightening when I was in Nevada and Utah and I may come across as a big girls blouse but it really does frighten me. 100 miles out of Hogback I rode into one almighty thunderstorm. Initially I didn't feel as scared as I'd been in the US as there were other people around and building and things but I seemed to be riding straight into it. I crested one hill and the wind picked up and the rain was almost horizontal. And them it happened. About 3-400 meters in front of me, right over the road, a god almighty bolt of electricity slammed into the ground. Within a millisecond I heard and felt the thunder. It was so loud I honestly felt my sternum shake. I kid you not. I stopped the bike as quickly and safely as I could without falling off. I turned the engine off, kicked the side stand down and jumped off. I was shaking. I walked away from the bike, about 30 meters, and just sat down in the wet grass at the side of the road. And I waited, and waited. The next bolt hit over to my right and the noise came a few seconds later. The thunder lasted for six seconds – I counted! I just sat there getting soaked – my waterproofs were nice and dry packed as they were in my panniers! A few minutes later another bolt, again further away struck and I began to feel a little better but I wasn't going to move, not yet. And then the wind and rain picked up again and I saw another flash. I couldn't tell, through the clouds, where it was coming from but after about five seconds I heard the noise, this time behind me. This was a new one. What should I do? I decided I'd had enough of lying in the grass, getting rained on and I'd try my luck on the road again. I got back on the bike and rode off. To cut a long story short the road seemed to run parallel to the storm for a good 20 minutes before I made it to a town and I stopped at a petrol station.

I know this all seems funny now. Obviously I didn't get killed and you probably aren't as afraid of lightening as I am. I'm just telling it as it is. In fact as I was typing this, sat in the Sani Lodge lounge, I felt a little silly about it all. Then I went outside and saw something I don't think I've ever seen before. Lightening but no thunder or rain – a true electrical storm. It was quite cloudy as well so the whole sky lit up with flashes of bright light, then total darkness. It was really quite aerie. I went back inside and asked if this was common. It was!

It started raining just as I went to bed and I sat in my tent for about 10 minutes as it rained and flashed and then started to thunder. I couldn't stand it. There was no way I was going to get to sleep in a tent in a lightening storm. I got up, grabbed my sleeping bag and headed back to the lounge. Everyone else had gone to bed by now and I just about to move into one of the empty dorms for the night when I heard a huge crash on the tin roof. Then another and another. It was hailing. But these were no ordinary hail stones.

Golf ball sized hail
I had a restless night, worried about the Sani pass, worried about lightening and worried that my poor bike was outside in the hailstorm.

Beautiful sunshine the next morning. And Heidi was fine. There are two other sets of campers sharing the campground with me. The English woman had also ducked into a dorm. For the night but the Australian couple had staying in their tent. Needless to say what's a bit of hail and lightening when you're used to camping with crocs. and black widow spiders and all sorts of snakes waiting to kill you.

I'm still apprehensive about going up the pass though. Actually it's the coming down that I'm worried about. I was hoping there'd be another biker or two here but it looks like I'm all alone again. I'm going to set off in a minute but am fully prepared to turn around when it gets too difficult. Or when it looks like it's going rain. There is no way I want to be stuck on a 2800 m high twisting mountain pass in a lightening storm. I wonder what the next paragraph is going to say?

I set off in glorious sunshine fortified by a breakfast consisting of Jersey milk. Those Jersey cows get everywhere. The 8 miles or so to the South African border post were relatively straight forward. I exited the RSA (no need to cancel my carnet as I would be back in a few hours) and prepared myself for the 5 miles ahead. That's all it was 5 miles but in those 5 miles I would climb 1000 meters, from 1900 to 2850.
I'll let the photos tell the story... All I need to say was that going up was tough, exhilarating, hard work and great fun all rolled into one.

Sani Pass - zig zagging up ahead

Initially the going was OK

Then it got steeper with sharper bends

I can't say I didn't falter occasionally. I think I stalled twice on corners and came close to dropping her once or twice. But we made it.

The hardest bit. Tight and rocky. I stalled and slide but made it

View back down the pass

That's one twisty road

Just near the top I met a biker coming down. He took a photo of me (another crap one) and I got a picture of him going down.

Not good of me OR the view. Oh well

At the top I got my passport stamped (“How long will you be staying sir”, “Oh, about an hour”). And performed an old Jedi mind trick on the customs official who wanted to see my South African road tax (“These are not the papers you're looking for. Move on.”) I pulled up at the Sani Pub – Africa highest Pub. The local beer has the strap line – How high can you get! I sat on the verandah and had a beer and a cigarette (Well actually I had a hot chocolate and I don't smoke, but this is supposed to be a motorbiking blog)

Lesotho - not the most pleasant entrance
I was extremely pleased with myself for having mad it up without falling off, and the views were truly stunning but in the back of my mind I was concerned about the trip down and I in no way wanted to be caught in an afternoon storm so I hopped back on Heidi and headed down.

Africa's highest pub - How high can you get?

Like most things in life the fear is in the unknown (or something like that) and the trip down wasn't as bad as I'd expected. But then again I HAD been on a BMW off road course with Simon Pavey! I remembered what he'd told me. First turn off the ABS. Then stick it in first gear and let the engine do the work. Stand on the pegs, grip the tank between your knees and use the rear break. Focus on what is up ahead not what is right in front of you and never look at where you don't want to go or you will go there. And it worked. I only had one scary section where I slide a little sideways as I locked the back break up but I was down in no time (well just over a hour actually) and safely back at the Lodge (having left Lesotho and re-entered South Africa of course).

Going down is easy if people GET OUT OF THE WAY!

Can I count this as my Africa river crossing, please?

Now I'm not an emotional guy but I was well pleased what what I had done. If I'm going to ride safely though Southern Africa I'm going to have take on a challenge or two and it's great to know that I can. I really feel that I've pushed myself today and had great fun riding through this fabulous scenery. Well done me!

So, all in all I'd covered 30 miles, entered and left a country and gone up, then down, 1000 metres, all in four and a half hours. Quite some day.

So, now that I've ridden over 1000 miles up South Africa I'd better explain what it's like. Well, I have to say that I don't think I've ever been anywhere that reminds me so much of England. It's not just the language and the fact that they drive on the left, it's also the scenery. I think I once described Alaska as like Scotland on steroids. Well the South Africa that I've been riding through is a little like rural England on steroids. Rolling hills (with Jersey cows on them) towns and villages churches (some of them purposefully mocking English Norman churches) golf courses, crown green bowling and cricket pitches. Obviously there are one or two more banana plantations, Rooibos tea plantations and wineries here than in Warwickshire (I did say reminded me – not it's the same) but I can't help feeling it's similar. Over one hundred years ago my great grandmother emigrated to this part of South Africa, perhaps it wasn't as far from home for her as it looked on a map.


I made a friend,albeit temporarily. Leaving Sani I stopped at a petrol station and saw a BMW 1200GS with a UK number plate go by. I caught him up and we stopped for coffee and a chat (I suppose we should have had tea being British, oh well) Mike has been on the road, on and off, for years and was at the end of a UK-South Africa trip that saw him get through Egypt just in time. Although he'd seen and done a lot he was an unassuming guy and I milked him for all the information I could before parting ways. I'd told him I was thinking of going to Sodwana Bay to dive. He said I should check out the Aliwal Shoal just south of Durban. So I changed my plans and headed there. (Incidentally, this is something I wouldn't normally do. I'm quite rigid about sticking to a plan and the fact that I've just changed my plan over a cup of coffee with a guy I just met might seem like small potato to you but for me this is something new. The Sani Pass, this and later St. Lucia - Perhaps this trip is changing me?)

The night before the dive I went to the local bar, which was a bit of a dive in it's own right. I got chatting to a local called Henry who was very concerned about me travelling on my own (he was worried about me being lonely) and insisted on giving me his phone number should I need any help whatsoever. Not in any creepy weird way I might add. See - the world is full of nice people.

Aliwal Shoal – one of the top ten dive sites in the world. The shoal, 4 miles out to sea was created from dune rock about 30,000 years ago. ( Yes, that's right my Utah Mormon friends - that's thirty thousands years ago; get over it) 6,500 years ago the sea level rose creating the reef. It was a great days diving. Perhaps the best dives I've done in a while. I saw black tipped sharks, one manta ray (no one else saw it!), hawksbill turtle, Octopus, nudibranchs, electric blue spotted puffer fish, huge stone fish, and lots and lots of reef fish. Mind you my dive buddy and dive Instructor was more interested in looking for sharks teeth in the sand. And I felt really sick on the boat between dives and nearly threw up on the second dive. But it was still a great couple of dives. (Note to wife: Sorry Tracy, I'll bring you here one day and I want you back as my dive buddy!)

Moving on up the coast I stopped at St. Lucia Estuary. Again this was suggested to me by someone in an email and I took his advice. And what good advice it was. The small town of St. Lucia is completely surrounded by a Natural World Heritage Site and is the most ecologically diverse tourist destination in Southern Africa. (I “could” see – Elephant, Leopard, Rhino, Hippo, Buffalo, turtles nesting, crocs in the water and hippos walking down the street apparently. This area has the highest number of Black Rhino in one place on earth, 525 species of birds, 35 species of frog, 36 species of snake, 800 hippos and 2000 crocs.

Beware of crocs and hippos

If Tracy were here she'd say "Look at their little ears!"

I'm protected!

Rather bizarrely the tourist brochure has a timeline of the place and says this about 1928. Huberta, St. Lucia's most famous Hippo, left her pod and began an epic journey of 1600 km across South Africa. In 1931, after crossing 122 rivers, she was killed by hunters in the Keiskamma River. I have so many questions....

I arrived just after 6 p.m. Almost breaking my rule of not riding at night and couldn't find the backpackers with a campsite that was mentioned in the LP. I stopped at a motel/lodge type place the first time I've done this in South Africa and was very pleasantly surprised. Nice room, with a fan and real hot water for only £20. (Camping would probably have been about £7). Africa is going to be so much cheaper than North America :)

The reason I chose the motel I did was because I saw an adventure bike parked in the car park. When I got back to my room after taking a stroll around town (no Hippos about) I found a note on my bike. It read, “Alaska, we are in room 14. leaving early in a.m. Want to do breakfast? Tom – Washington, Pat and Christina, Quebec.” How could I refuse. I don't think I've ever DONE breakfast before.

What a surprise I got in the morning. Tom was the one and same Tom who'd I'd met briefly in Canada at the motorbike rally last August. He's offered me a bed for the night in Washington which I hadn't taken him up on. And Pat and Christina had also been at the rally. It was like meeting old friends. We had a very long breakfast and swaped stories and pieces of advice for over three hours. Eventually they left, heading south but I've got their number and am sure we'll meet up again. We're all heading the same way anyway.

Tom loading his V-Strom

Pat and Christina with their loaded Afric Twin

I spent a quite, pleasant and hot day in St. Lucia. I rode up to the estuary and saw some hippos and as soon as I post this blog I'll go out again for sunset and see what I can find. Heading into Swaziland tomorrow and aiming for a Game reserve that Tom told me about. It lets motorbikes in (unlike most) and they saw giraffe and warthogs on the short ride to the camp ground. Should be good.

This last week has been amazing. A few lows and many many highs. So far South Africa has surpassed all expectations and I most certainly am having the time of my life (apart from my wedding obviously. Oh and meeting Tracy in the first place and, it goes without saying, every day I've been with her.) But apart from that...

1 comment:

  1. A great adventure is already unfolding Dom. There is something a bit mystical about you and lightening!! The off road ride looks very scary. I think I would have walked!! We only have about 8 weeks to go before flying back to the UK. Where does the time go?? Jill & David