Beyond the Bike 2015/16 - Bamboo with a View.

Stories from the people, places and personal challenges encountered by riding a bamboo bike through Africa and Asia.

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South Africa - Is the Rainbow Nation losing hope?

South Africa is a country of huge contrasts; the richest and the poorest living in very close proximity, terrible stories of violent crime yet very kind and generous people and we did not have any problems at all in the six weeks we were travelling through. Politcally and economically, comparisons are currently being made to Zimbabwe. We hope that it does not go the same way...


The beautiful cycle out of Balfour after the storm (and before the road became terrifying).

We crossed the border at Beitbridge, the busiest border post in Africa. It took three hours of standing in the midday sun, a short wait in comparison to the horror stories we later heard of people waiting there all day. Old, ill and disabled people were not allowed to jump the queue and the crowd was getting very angry. When we finally got through, we headed straight to Johannesburg.

We had a great few days in the city (and a welcome rest from pedalling). We caught up with Nobantu and Ris among many other good friends. They were appalled to learn we had walked to meet them for dinner (the 1km from Neil’s house where we were staying) but then it became clear why: Ris told us about his terrible experience a few months earlier. He was carjacked at gunpoint, he thought he was going to die three separate times that night: when he first saw the gun, when the men drove away with him in the car and then when they released him. Laughs did follow when Nobantu told us about the chief of police turning up at their house in his pyjamas and a (probably his wife's) fur coat, and when Ris told us how the carjackers where so surprised to see he was black and asked why he was living in ‘such a lani (posh) neighbourhood'. But despite the laughs, this is sadly an increasingly common feature of life in Johannesburg and South Africa. Crimes like these will only get worse as the moribund political and economical situation deteriorates.  


Our South African cycling started properly when we left JHB. Ris and Nobantu very kindly drove us out of the city centre to avoid the worst of the traffic, with South Africa boasting some of the worst road safety records on planet earth. The plan was to take us about 20km out but then the worst storm we had experienced came down on us with wind, rain and heavy hail. We sheltered in a garage in Balfour and when it was safe for them to drive, back, Stu and I dried out in a lodge. This was our first experience of poor whites africans; I got chatting to the children playing in the garden and was told quite candidly by a little girl that she lived there with her grandmother (who cannot have been much older than 40) and that one of the boys had moved into the lodge as his mother worked there and his father beat them up, and that the one black children was living there as his mother also worked there but had had a stroke and so they were looking after her son.


Later we had a lovely ride to Val and had a great experience staying at the Val hotel where we were welcomed by the slightly eccentric but very generous Rita. She showed us around the little museum and gave us a very fitting bottle of wine - Boer v Brit. We would have the wine as a gift if we could pronounce the name of the bar, I gave it my best shot, she laughed and said it was good enough! She told us that the bar was usually shut on Mondays but we were in luck as the local farmers had phoned to say they were coming in to celebrate the first proper rain. We then had a great night with the farmers!


This bar is called 'Place to go when you are tired of ploughing'!


Then a few days of not so fun cycling on very dangerous roads with lots of traffic and no hard shoulder, both physically and mentally exhausting, but even more wonderful hispitality along the way. The cycling got better when we went off the main roads to the stunning foothills of the Drackensburg mountains and we had a lovely night in the little village of Normandien, then if was off to Dundee where we had been connected with Reg and Martha’s (from Falcon College in Zim) daughter and in-laws.  


The stunning route to the farm in Normandien


From then on we experienced the best of South African hospitality, being sent from family to family, everyone had a friend or relative in the town we wanted to head for and everyone was such fun and so generous. We had a great day riding out of Dundee with the Holliday family where father and son Mike and Rob battled it out for the fastest tandem descent (Rob won with 85km, still not beating Stu's sister, Nic’s time from 2012 on the long, straight descent to the Dead Sea in Jordan). I got up to 66km/hr on the bamboo but then it started shaking about so much I got very scared and realised it probably wouldn't go any faster without coming off the road!  


Rob with the winning speed of this trip so far


From Greytown, we had another great day's riding with Grant and Ang who helped us get up the big hills towards the Karkloof valley.  Then it was down to Horwick and a little trip up the Midlands Meander and a visit to the Mandela Capture Site.  The history of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ is so interesting and inspiring and this museum really brought home to us how much Mandela would be ’turning in his grave’ to see what is happening today.  Such a wonderful country is tragically falling into despair and racial tensions are again rising. I spoke to a white farmer in Natal who told a very similar story to the famers in Zimbabwe and there are a lot of worries that SA is going the same way as its northern neighbour. Then onto Pietermaritzburg and staying in another school, although it was Christmas holidays so we did not meet any pupils. Our host, Matt cycled out with us along the first 30km of the Comrades Marathon route the next day.  This was a lovely cycle but very hilly again and I don’t know how the marathon runners do it.


Sitting for a 'breather' on 'Arthur's seat' on the comrades marathon route.


Finally we reached Durban, our end point for the Economic Cycle in Africa. The city's impressive port is where most of the natural resources mined in Southern Africa are shipped to Asia from. We arrived on Christmas Eve and were warmly welcomed by several friends.The idea of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ (or lack thereof) came up again when talking to Kirstie, a white English girl, who is married to a black South African. They met in Singapore and she was very excited about moving to the Rainbow Nation as thought their relationship would be easier, but sadly people are still judging them. We had a great Boxing Day at the cricket, the highlight being talking to Aggers on Test Match Special and meeting several cricketers. Stu did try to get Geoffrey Boycott to join us but was met with the unsurprising response of ' You'll not get me on t'bike, even with your Claire'.


The port in Durban - we had followed core minerals from mine (in DRC, Zambia and Zim) to the port from where they are shipped to Asian factory



Talking to Aggers on Test Match Special and trying to persuade Boycott to come out on the tandem.


Then, yes we 'cheated' and drove to Cape Town, experiencing more generous hospitality en route. Forget about mugging and violent crime, driving through the Transkei was probably the scariest experience in South Africa mainly as I had hardly driven since August (I think Stu was more scared than me). The roads were not great and often we would come round a corner to find cows of goats in the middle of the road. We did not drive as aggressively as the local buses and so were often overtaken at alarming speeds on corners, but we made it and things calmed down a bit when we made it onto the beautiful garden route.

Finally Cape Town, a beautiful city, with so much to do and see, although the distinction between rich and poor is never so evident. Again we had an amazing time with Neil and many other friends, walking up Lion’s head was a highlight (although we didn’t make it up Table Mountin as it was too windy).


Gorgeous views from Lion's Head


We had a few more days of cycling; to Cape Point and two days in the winelands, where we spent Stuart’s birthday at Boekenhootskloof farm, a wonderful place where we were looked after so well and very much enjoyed their wine!


bono wine

A very windy ride to Cape Point and Stu enjoying the wine tasting at Boekenhootskloof (Morgan Freeman signed one of the bottles & Bono even wrote a song about our favourite wine - The Chocolate Block. 


Then it was time to pack up the bikes again. Ironically, after everyone talking of the corruption in Africa we managed to get all the way to the airport without paying a single ‘fine’, but our final African payment was (cash) to the man at check-in to allow our bikes onto the plane as they exceeded the weight limit!

South Africa is a country we felt very happy in and despite lots of warnings we felt very safe. We just really hope that things do not deteriorate too much more. We will miss Africa greatly and have had four amazing months, cycling 4000km. This blog is being published from the UAE as we stop off enroute to Singapore. The next blog will be from somewhere in Asia...


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