Friday, October 28, 2011

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

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