Friday, October 28, 2011

South Africa: Part 2

Apartheid Museum
Sani Pass
Pilanesberg Game Park

The port city of Durban lies on the southeastern Indian coast of South Africa. Once there, I explored the town with Emily, a grad student from Santa Barbara. We managed to figure out the confusing and intimidating shared taxi system. The city was abuzz with white Toyota minivans going every which way, none marked with a name or route specified. The locals in the taxis were always surprised to see us get in and offered good advice about their hometown once we broke the ice by asking questions. Later we got some take out at a hole in the wall Indian storefront. My favorite was the stuffed roti, or a pizza size piece of naan rolled around a curry stew of your choice, sort of like a big Indian burrito. The other local favorite was Bunny Chow, a ¼ or ½ loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with beans or a curry stew. Either one was a filling choice for two people and at just over a buck.

The next day I explored some of the city on my own and wandered around downtown until I got lost among the Indian spice markets and other small businesses. The scene was vibrant and the people watching was on hyper drive. “Why do you not come into my store?” I heard from behind me. “Excuse me?” “Why do you not stop in my store?” A small elderly Indian woman was standing in front of a kitchen supply shop. “Well, I don’t cook very much.” “How do you eat?” “I spend too much money in restaurants.” You need a wife, why do you have no wife? You marry me and I cook for you.” “Okay, what time are you off?... alright, I will pick you up at 5:00 and we will go and get married.” Based on the rolling eyes of the man in the background, presumably the owner, he had seen this sales pitch before.

After many hours, my feet were getting tired. As I looked for a taxi going back to my side of town I was aware that I had not seen many white people. No more than a few at best. On my way home, I jumped out at the new shopping mall along the way to look for a Lonely Planet guidebook on Southern Africa. Upon entering the mall, “Ah, this is where all the white people go.” The place was packed for a weekday during work hours. I would later read “malls” referred to as “white habitats”.

The toll road, N3 from Durban to Johannesburg cost me nearly $40 US. Where in many countries motorcycles get a free pass or at least a reduced rate, here they are charged they same as cars. Approaching Jo’burg, or Jozi as they call it, I became more and more anxious - no place has come with so many warnings of violent crime.

I arrived during rush hour traffic and did not find my backpackers until after dark. The place was perfect for shooting a movie about a scary turn of the century mental asylum. It had been converted from an old mansion and the large rooms were now filled with metal beds and nothing else. It was stark and clinical in a third-world early 1900’s kind of way. I feared of a forced lobotomy in the middle of the night and quickly checked out first thing in the morning. My new place was in a converted house with lots of charm and was only a few blocks away from the shops and cafes on 7th Street in the Melrose district near the University. Much better.

During my transition from Cape Town to Jo’burg, Achmat had turned “my care” over to his buddy Rashaad. Rashaad was also making his way up the continent on his own journey and had just returned from a trip to Tanzania, where his KLR 650 is there waiting for the next leg of his journey. Rashaad was immensely helpful and we shared several dinners together. He also took me to buy a new camera when mine failed and to shop for a mosquito net. At the time of this writing, Rashaad had taken advantage of an impromptu family trip to India and is now riding a rented Ensfield around the Himalayas. He also took me to a presentation hosted by Cytech, a local motorcycle touring company. The presentation was about their recent Cape to Cairo trip.

I received a lot of information there and met a lot of like-minded people eager to travel Africa on big dual-purpose bikes. I met a couple there and mentioned that I would soon be relocating from Jo’burg to the capital Pretoria so that I could be near the embassies - I wanted to try and sort out some visa issues, specifically Ethiopia and Sudan. “You should stay with us, we live there” (words that would later come back to haunt them).

I continued my stay in Jo’burg and had warmed up to the place. I felt plenty safe walking to my favorite coffee shop for morning coffee and free internet (most of South Africa hotels are still charging for internet time.) Every morning I walked by all the houses hidden behind a high cement security walls topped with electric fences and/or razor wire. It was a city of walls. The home security firm ADT roamed the neighborhoods with its own patrol cars manned by agents armed like they were in Afghanistan. I also noticed that not many people walked, jogged, or took their dogs or kids for a stroll. People were pretty much dependent on their cars, like in the States, but maybe more so. Everywhere I went or the places where Rashaad took me, I felt fine and any sense of danger soon vanished. Listening to the news you would hear of bad things happening, but not as much as you would of thought, based on the amount of visible security measures.

After a visit to the Apartheid Museum south of town I decided to take the bike out to the famous township of Soweto (South Western Township). After the gold strike of the 1880’s, Johannesburg suffered a housing crisis. The white Afrikaans in charge decided to segregate the population based on race and developed housing areas where the blacks and coloured people would be forced to live – however not too far away because their cheap labor was still needed to work the mines. As history goes, this kind of segregation continued until it went into full effect in 1948 when the then ruling National Party legislated racism under the name of Apartheid.

Racial classification was the foundation of all apartheid laws. It placed individuals in one of four groups: African, described as ‘Bantu’ in apartheid laws, ‘colured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘white’. -from a museum placard

South Africa was soon cut off from the rest of the world through sanctions and embargoes, and public demonstrations in the townships reached a boiling point in the 1970’s. The most famous of these uprisings occurred in Soweto in 1976, after a sudden change in government policy called for all schools to begin teaching classes in the Afrikaans language rather than English. Many of the black students had just learned English, or were in the process, and to introduce a new language (not to mention that of their oppressors’) overnight was too much. Many of the teachers did not even know the language. The student uprising became violent and many people were killed. One of the first to be killed by police was 12-year old Hector Pieterson. Now there is an impressive museum in Soweto commemorating the uprisings and casualties named after Hector.

Soweto is a huge sprawl of cement block Monopoly game piece type houses. Mountains of the tailings from the nearby goldmines border the township, and on one edge, the new soccer stadium constructed for the recent World Cup competition. A few blocks from the Hector Pieterson Museum is Nelson Mandela’s first house. Down the street from that is Desmond Tu Tu’s old house. It is the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Both museums offer a sobering and emotional look into the scarred history of this troubled country and it is hard not to form a “rebound” prejudice against the way things are here, but in reality, there has not been a country yet that I have visited that is innocent of committing crimes against it’s people. The thing about South Africa’s secret was that it was always a public secret. It was out in the open. Not that this makes it any more digestible or any easier to understand mind you.

During my time in the country I have listened to how locals old enough to have lived during that era talk about this period, many times it sounds something like “Because of the situation here at the time….” or "due to what was going on here ....". I do not want to speculate on what is said behind closed doors from many, racism still exist everywhere, but all the people I met seemed genuine and eager for even better race relations. It is clearly going to take some time.

The last thing on my Jo’burg “to do” list was to get my rear shock looked at. Yes, the one that was just rebuilt in Buenos Aires. One day in the Transkei, the shock just went “soft”. I found Rob of RD Racing and he rebuilt the shock again, this time to Ohlins’ official specifications. He was nice enough to not to charge me. From his shop in Jo’burg I left for the capital Pretoria to stay with Claire and Euan, the couple from the presentation.

My plan was to take my file of photocopies and collected documents to the embassies in town to try and procure my visas for some of the more difficult countries. Claire dropped me off at the Ethiopian embassy and I quickly learned how fruitless this idea was going to be and soon dropped the whole idea. I will deal with it all later.

Over the weekend, Claire and Euan took me to the nearby game park of Pilanesberg northwest of town. Waking at 4:00-am assured us of some good viewing time while the animals were active in the cool morning air. During the drive I was surprised at how many (platinum) mines we passed to get to the park. This was to be my first real chance to see some African wildlife, and we were fortunate to see plenty; white rhinos, giraffes, elephants, jackals, hippos, and a variety of the local antelope species. From a distance we saw a lioness with her cub and male lion, but it was pretty far away. By about 10:00, the animals started finding shade and soon were no longer visible from the car’s windows (understandably, it is not allowed to get out of your car) and rightfully so because it was getting damn hot, over a 100 for sure.

Claire was raised in South Africa and Euan was Scottish working on the construction of a massive new coal burning power plant nearby. They were married in the UK when Claire was there working. They were gracious hosts and willingly shared their beautiful home with me. As I planned to depart, Euan and I decided to take the bikes up Sani Pass to the kingdom country of Lesotho. It met a trip down back towards Durban, but on roads more interesting than the toll road. Sani Pass is quite famous among overland travelers and it is something to be able to say, "I did it”. The last half-mile of the pass was as technical as anything I had ridden in quite some time. The switchbacks were steep and the rocky ground incredibly loose. When stopping the bike near the top, the front brake could not hold the bike and the bike would slide backwards on the loose dirt. Euan has made up to the top before, but on this trip his clutch burnws out near the top. I made it up, but had a nice surprise when I got back down to the bottom.

(Rather than traveling through Lesotho Euan had to take car (thankfully Claire had followed us up the pass in the Land Rover) down to town and bring back a trailer to get his bike off the mountain. This meant that we were going back to Ken's house for the night, Claire's uncle. I did not mind a bit. We spent the previous night at Ken's and it was an incredible experience for me to stay in one of the typical farmhouses that I had admired from the road. Ken moved his young family to this farmland over 40-years ago. First they lived under an umbrella, and then upgraded into a tent while Ken built the earthen-walled farmhouse from scratch. It has not always been easy, mostly quite hard in fact, but Ken has lived his life according to Ken and I really admire that. Hemingway once wrote of a man knowing "the truth of things", and I thought of this when I met Ken.)

While Euan was making arrangements for his bike. I noticed that my front shock had blown its seal and was now leaking oil. YES, that other shock that was rebuilt in Buenos Aires - $550 completely wasted! YES, I was pissed! This time, Rob was unable to do the job due to some national races going on, so I found a contact from the local BMW dealer. This meant even more time at Claire and Euan’s. I really started to feel bad about being there so long, but I did not know what else to do. It had already been over a week. They were true saviors for me and I owe them an immense amount of thanks. The night before I left Claire put together a nice final supper on the patio with some bubbly.

Finally, the bike was ready with fresh oil and stocked with plenty of water and Biltong -South Africa's version of beef jerky. I would spend 16-hours over the next two-days crossing the hot scrubby Kalahari Desert in southern Botswana on my way to, Namibia.

I enjoyed South Africa very much and feel like I have some new friends there. The cities seemed very much like prosperous areas of the United States and life there is very similar ours. Life in many of the rural areas seem more like life in a developing country but seemingly getting better. Few countries have the beauty and resources that South Africa has and is a wonderful place to visit. Two thumbs up for the modern day South Africa!

Video of images for South Africa 2
Video of the Sani Pass trip.
My route through South Africa, Map of route.

South Africa: Part I


Languages: 11 official languages, but most people speak English. Afrikaans is spoke by many, especially among whites. Xhosa and Zulu are two commonly spoke native languages.

Money: the Rand is approximately 7.50 to $1

Price of gas: $5.15 a gallon, or $1.30 a liter

Miles traveled in country: 3,000

No visa required

After getting the bike out of customs I planned on taking some short trips around the region. I had a great little corner room at The Zebra Crossing backpackers (hostel) that had almost a full view of Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain so it made for a good home base.

I met Achmat through Horizons Unlimited’s community program. The website is for overland travelers looking for current information. The “community” program is comprised of volunteers that make themselves available for advice about their hometown (e.g., I was a community member while living in Bolivia.) I had been communicating with Achmat from Buenos Aires and he had been very helpful preparing me for my entry into South Africa. Over dinner one night at the Eastern Bazaar, a collection of Indian and Malaysian food stalls under one roof, he tells me that his ancestors were from Malaysia and that his family has been in the Cape area for several generations. Back during Malaysia’s colonial rule, political troublemakers were sent off to this area of South Africa. The English did the same with non-compliant citizens from India during their rule there, but sent them off to the Durban area of South Africa. Now you have large populations of Malay and Indian people in the country along with their cultural and, thankfully, gastronomic influences.

(I should mention, during this time I am still having some difficulty having a conversation in English, instead always wanting to answer in Spanish. It is wonderful to hear English everywhere, but when I try to respond I first have to see the word in Spanish and then translate it back into English in my head, creating a lapse in my response, thus making me look like a complete idiot.)

Achmat and I decided on a weekend trip to Cape Agulhas, the southern most part of Africa, and my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean.

During our ride we stopped for coffee in the wine town of Stellenbosch before catching the N2 to Swellendam. It was another cloudless blue-sky day with temperatures in the low 70s. We took beautiful dirt roads south to Arniston - a scenic little fishing village made up of a of simple whitewashed stone houses capped with thatched roofs. The Indian Ocean made for a beautiful backdrop. I sat on my bike as Achmat talked to a local about buying one of the houses for a weekend getaway. As I waited, I sat and watched as an elderly woman slowly made her way to the shore to watched the sunset, occasionally ducking behind a wall to get out of the wind. No luck. Only the locals could buy property due to the fact that they whole village was now a national heritage site.

That night we stayed at a friend of Achmat’s house. In the morning we packed up and headed off to Cape Agulhus. Being the most southern point of the continent, it is also the point that acts as the dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. We then took the coastal route on the way home, a route that seemed like a compressed “greatest hits” version of California’s AIA route. Along the way we stopped for a break at one of the many beaches along the road. Sitting there, Achmat told me how he and his high school buddies once skipped school to come here and surf - and ended up in jail. During apartheid this was declared a “Whites Only” beach, and he and his friends were classified as “coloured” on their national ID cards. The “Coloured” classification sat in between the “black” and “white” classifications. He laughed as he remembered his parents picking him up at the police station. I didn't see the humor.

Back at the Zebra, I splurged on a day of shark cage diving and a few trips to my favorite new haute, Hudson’s Burger Joint on Kloof Street. An honest burger and glass of South African’s signature Pinotage wine is hard to beat.

All good things must come to an end, so I set out to leave Cape Town on October 5th. Achmat was nice enough to head out of town with me as far as Worcester. From there I would make my way along the famed Route 62. The two-lane blacktop reminded me very much of a typical road in the American Southwest. October was ideal time for blooming wild flowers. It was another perfectly clear day. I was told of one landmark to look out for along the route.

In the middle of nowhere lies Ronnie’s Sex Shop. Legend has it that Ronnie decided to take over a dilapidated cottage many years ago in hopes of selling fresh produce to the infrequent passer-by. Maybe not the most thought out business plan, but oh well. One night, some friends, perhaps under the influence (?), decided to pull a prank on Ronnie and painted the word “sex” on the side of the building. Overnight Ronnie’s Shop became Ronnie’s Sex Shop and business has been great ever since. Selling produce gave way to opening a bar, as beer is more profitable than broccoli, and has since become world famous. The interior is decorated with business cards and hanging panties and bras – I suppose the women were just shedding a layer of clothing to contend with the desert heat. It was all very reminiscent of Mike’s Sky Ranch in Baja.

From Ronnie’s, I continued on to Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa -where you can ride and eat the birds all in the same afternoon. From there I crossed over the Swartberg Pass to stay the night in the lace and doily rich B&B town of Prince Albert (see Video).

Skip ahead a bit, and I am further up the coast in the town of Prince Alfred (named after Prince Albert’s son). With the goal of making it to the port city of Durban I have a few more days of riding along the coast to get there. However, whenever I mentioned this route, the Transkei, I am met with warnings; “don’t ever leave your bike”, “gas up before you get to the larger cities”, “don’t stop at the red lights, just keep going”. I was told that all the rural people come into the larger towns on Fridays to spend the weekend to do their shopping or to sell their wares, and it can be a bit lawless and dangerous.

As usual, I found the Transkei the complete opposite and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The countryside was big sky over rolling hills carpeted with cropped green grass. Small homesteads were spread out along the horizon. I would come to learn later that the small circular mud bricked houses with conical thatched or metal roofs were known as Rondavel houses and the people that lived in these parts were of the Xhosa ethnic group. Nelson Mandela was in fact the son of a Xhosa chief from the Transkei. School kids in uniforms walked home from school along the two-lane highway and always returned my wave. I finally felt like I was getting into the real Africa. I did go through those lawless towns and found them bustling with life and activity. Tables had been set up on the sidewalks to sell shoes, household soaps, plumbing supplies, or whatever. The streets were busy with people talking and laughing under the shade of simple umbrellas. Perhaps things get out of hand later in the night, but for now, I was envious of all the fun they were having, but then again, I was busy having my own fun.

Along the Transkei, I passed a slower bike with German plates and with only one pannier. I passed him and pulled over well up ahead and waited. Chris had just completed a Germany to Cape Town trip in eight months and was now on his way to Durban to ship his bike to Australia. We were both heading to the beach area of Port St. John for the night and decided to ride together and camp at a backpacker that he knew about. Over many Castle beers Chris told me of his trip down the continent and of his round the world trip back in the 90’s. He also told me of his two recent ankle operations, one in Ethiopia after a taxi van sideswiped his bike, taking a pannier and almost his foot with it, and the other operation in Uganda to correct the surgical mistakes made in Ethiopia. “Ah, the Germans are always so hardcore!” Hung-over, the next morning we crawled out of our respective tents and watched South Africa’s Springboks get eliminated from rugby’s World Cup by Australia.

Video of images to accompany post: VIDEO

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chapter Two: Africa

The September 23rd flight to South Africa was nearly nine hours long and moved the clock five-hours ahead from Buenos Aires time. The temperature in Cape Town was a good 15-degrees warmer (85F), people drove on the wrong side of the road, preferred rugby to soccer and spoke English (to me anyway). It was all very different, very fast.

My bike had arrived the day before on a separate South African Airline flight. I was able to ship all my tools, spare parts and riding suit/helmet with the bike for a total of $1,780. I had to remove the windscreen, mirrors and front wheel to make the bike smaller. The battery had to be disconnected and tires flattened (so they would blow up, which is ridiculous) and gas tank empty. Custom officers asked me about what was in the luggage, but never actually looked at anything.

Cape Town is a stunning city, geographically laid out around its famous Table and Lion’s Head Mountains and the Atlantic shore. Everything you need is here, as South Africa appears to be very much be a first world country – depending on where you look. Politically, lines are still divided by the color of skin and the Ferrari and Bentley car dealerships are only a few miles away from sad and neglected townships. These shantytowns are jam-packed with shacks thrown together with corrugated metal and other found scrap material. This view of Cape Town is very much like a third world country. To say that there is no middle-class here is a huge under statement. The “haves” and the “have-nots” are oceans apart. Talking to locals and you sense a lot has changed since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 and the abolishment of apartheid, but it may take a couple more generations of healing and cooperation before South Africa’s beauty is more than just skin deep.

Regarding my travels, Chapter Two, as we can call it, looks something like this: I will travel from Cape Town to Istanbul, Turkey. If I make it that far, I will reassess my options on what is next. One option is to then travel east on the old trading route of the Silk Road with the goal of reaching Mongolia (Chapter 3). From there, if at all possible, I would venture up into Russia to meet up with the Siberian railway to catch a ride to the Pacific coast (Chapter 4). The final chapter would then be a short plane ride to Alaska and a ride down to Seattle where it all began. Or, another option is I get to Istanbul and decide I have had enough.

One thing is certain, if I have any chance of carrying through with the aforementioned plan, timing will be crucial. I am now two-months shy of the summer rainy season in Sub-Saharan Africa, where heat and malaria are at their highest. If I want to continue east from Turkey, it would have to be in the warmth of next spring, and I would then have only until to early September to get to Alaska before the weather make the route impassable, or at least very uncomfortable. What all this means is that I have got to pick up the pace!

Nothing is certain, but I feel fairly sure that I do not have another two years on the road left in me. In fact, I came very close to shipping the bike home from Argentina, rather than to Africa.

Back when I first arrived in Buenos Aires (July 12th), I felt like I had had enough. The 5,000-mile crossing of Brazil and Uruguay left me feeling flat and I felt like I wasn’t getting much out of the experience any more. Don’t get me wrong, the people of Brazil were some of the friendliest on the trip, and the city of Montevideo was a pleasant surprise, but I wasn’t really feeling the love from the road that I once had. In Buenos Aires, I was convinced I was going home and made preparations in that direction. However, with some time to recharge my batteries, I now feel good about continuing. The bike was gone through by Javier at Dakar Motos with parts shipped down from Seattle, and now is fixed and running great.

Just yesterday, I returned from a little two-day shakedown run to Cape Agulhas, the southern most point of the continent. Everything went well and in a couple of days will start my trip north, to Botswana.

That’s about it for Chapter Two page one.

Video of some of South Africa's notorious White Sharks