South Africa at its finest

Those of you unfamiliar with South Africa may not appreciate some of the questionable actions from the ranks of Government over the past decade. Take for example the good folks running Eskom, who, as the State’s electricity public utility have not exactly showered themselves in glory during the past few years and as a result, the country still endures periodic blackouts. For some, this particular State owned enterprise has come to represent the ills of leadership in this country. You can imagine our surprise then, to have spent the past month hopping between the State-funded and world class South African National Parks (SAN Parks).

These places are excellent. And not just in the context of this country, but in the context of any other corner of the word we have sampled. What’s more, given that the jewel in the SAN Parks crown still awaits, we are feeling pretty buoyed by the Wild Card pass we purchased before leaving Cape Town, which gives us entry into all these highly underrated parks.  

We took a week in Storms River Mouth, which provided a quite breathtaking setting in which to pitch a tent. A fortnight previously, an affable and well travelled chap by the name of Roy spoke highly of Storms River, but did suggest that as a priority we find good shelter from the wind. In hindsight, we didn’t really pay enough attention to Roy and having now comprehensively tested our kit, it’s fair to say that the weather at this time of year is not for wimps. However, the rain, wind and relentless crashing ocean combined to create some sort of extreme ambient white noise, which seemed to send everyone into a solid nights sleep. Which was a pleasant surprise. 

The Otter Trail begins at Storms River and although circumstance at this time in our lives has not allowed us to indulge in a hike along this world famous stretch of coastline, we did manage a quick jog on Day 1 of the five-day trail, and by all observations the hype is thoroughly warranted. 

According to the purists out there, the Garden Route ends at the suspension bridge over Storms River, and so we left one of the country’s best-exported draw cards behind and headed further into the pleasing contrast of the Eastern Cape. Our first stop was Addo Elephant Park and this place doesn’t pull any punches; it’s a massive area full of elephants. Like those before it, this SAN Park was near flawless, and the kids were quite taken aback by the close encounters with wildlife. All combined to deliver a very memorable couple of days. 

In a nutshell, we have struggled to find fault in these superb places which seem to showcase the very best of this country. Perhaps the thoroughly good team in charge of SAN Parks could have a crack at the Eskom portfolio for a while. Just to get the lights back on. 

Storms River camp is a bit of a jaw dropper
Our sample of the Otter trail
Something spectacular just seems to pop up around every corner
Surprisingly keen to help out
The different stages of learning how to smile
The end of our very rewarding time on the Garden Route
Mission very much accomplished
The games of eye spy became less challenging
Enjoyable driving through the Eastern Cape

Enjoying the Wilderness

Our time in South Africa over the past few years has been largely spent expecting a new baby or nursing a new baby. As a result, we never really ventured with much gusto beyond weekend trips from Cape Town. As we plotted our route for this journey though, the voices championing a stop at Wilderness were plentiful. So we decided to stop.

We departed Prince Albert – a town to be remembered for some very colourful characters – via a thoroughly enjoyable drive over Swartberg Pass. Pitching camp on a rainy Sunday afternoon on the edge of Wilderness National Park did not thankfully set the tone for the week.  There is a lot on offer in this corner of the world and while we have sampled a good slice of the family friendly hikes, enchanting forests and impressive beaches, we have left much to return for. 

In wildlife news, aside from an impressive flyby from Egyptian Geese while canoeing on the Touws River, notable bird sightings include the Narina Trogon and Knysna Loeries; the latter of which was even confidently spotted by one of the youngest in our ranks.  

It’s pleasing to report that our camp logistics are slowly improving. This week for example, we introduced a discreet potty station towards the rear of the camp. The intention being to reduce night runs to the loo and more crucially, to prevent our living quarters becoming an unregulated latrine. We had great success on this front and encouragingly it has been used almost exclusively only by the children. Almost. It did though result in the occasional awkward encounter when exchanging morning pleasantries with a perfect stranger, while both parties politely ignore the plastic pot brimming with a cocktail of hydration. 

Currently in The Crags above Plettenberg Bay and judging by the fine seafood lunches on offer, this place is about to give our budgeted per diem a bit of a seeing to. 

Early morning on the very cool Swartberg Pass
After a bit of jostling we found a spot on the beach
The camp throne
The Wilderness National Park delivered some memorable hikes and river crossings.
Gratuitous long exposure camp shot

Chapter Two

In those peaceful years of marriage before deciding to start a family we would often observe those distressed looking parents attempting to negotiate a gaggle of toddlers at an airport, or a restaurant, or a beach, or wherever. What idiots, we would smugly think to ourselves; what are they doing? 

And it was this superior wisdom that we applied when deciding to once again throw most of our belongings into storage and take our three young daughters on a camping trip around South Africa for the next few months.

Previous followers of this blog may recall that we rolled into Cape Town Waterfront a little over five years ago on a couple of well-used bicycles. These next few months are intended to provide another slight detour for us, and so we thought it might warrant reigniting this account. The next chapter though, is likely to deliver somewhat contrasting content from our first installment. Indeed, if it is tales of cross-continental cycle exploits that you’re after, then this is no longer the place for you. If however, you’re keen to know the results of a pressure test between a volatile two-year-old and an overpacked family car, then stay tuned.

To ease ourselves into this, we couldn’t have selected a more appropriate first stop. Dwarsberg Trout Hideaway is held in high regard by the family circles of Cape Town and for immediately apparent reasons – it’s a magnificent spot. However, given that two from our party of five had never spent a night under canvas our first evening was approached with a healthy dose of trepidation, as this was going to provide the litmus test for our next few months. 

It was moderately worrying then, when we all emerged at daybreak and the regular morning offer of ‘tea or coffee Dear?’, prompted a request to make this morning’s coffee Irish. In our almost ten years of union, never had such a request been made. More worryingly though, this was 7:30am of the first morning; we haven’t packed nearly enough whisky for all this. Reassuringly, the next few nights passed without incident and the single malt remains in stock.

After passing through the implausibly big and quite breathtaking Karoo, we are resupplying – while being hammered by some unrelenting wind – in the very pleasant town of Prince Albert, before heading south.

Evidently, we won’t be travelling particularly light on this occasion
Testing out the new kit
Our new alternative to Peppa Pig
Stretching the legs

Post script

Two months after finishing in Cape Town, although our own productivity levels have tapered off somewhat, a few journalists have taken some interest in our trip and written their own accounts of our journey.

In South African press:

http://traveller24.news24.com/Explore/Couple-undertake-epic-year-long-cycle-from-China-to-SA-20150528

And in the UK:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3112066/Spider-bites-military-checkpoints-white-knuckle-ride-Tunnel-Death-Thrill-seeking-couple-cycles-11-000-MILES-gruelling-trek-China-South-Africa.html

A word from our sponsors:

http://www.kathmandu.co.nz/summit-club/stories/cycling-china-south-africa

And from Chobe National Park:

https://afktravel.com/93765/from-china-to-cape-town-cycling-couple-shares-impressions-of-chobe-detour/

Our year in pictures

We thought our arrival into Cape Town Waterfront warranted a final blog post, on account of all those who were good enough to be there last Monday and deliver the warm welcome home.

Below are a few photos from our final moments of the trip and beneath that, some which tell the story of how we ended up there.

We’re done with riding for now.

Still friends.

Worth the wait.

And in order to make it to the waterfront:

China: departing on day 1 with 18,000km ahead of us and a lot to learn.

Kyrgyzstan: cold times.

Tajikistan: perhaps the most spectacular riding of the whole trip.

Uzbekistan: early mornings to avoid the heat. And conveniently, the tourists.

Kazakhstan: pleased to be in Aktau (at first), signalling the end of the Central Asian leg.

Georgia: has a lot going for it, and ended up as one of our finest months.

Turkey: a mosque in every town.

Greece: a more relaxed time. With cotton fields and a dash of ouzo…

Egypt: mainly dreadful.

Sudan: the surprise package of the trip. Peaceful days and nights.

Ethiopia: barely a yard of road was ridden without passing someone. A truly frantic country.

Kenya: some youngsters learning the Maasai way of life.

Tanzania: a mixed bag. Some tough riding but a rewarding country.

Zambia: interested locals. The help and hospitality in Zambia was tremendous.

Namibia: long desert stretches and tiring days.

South Africa: tears at our first sighting of Table Mountain, on our penultimate day.

The End

If you sit on a bicycle in western China and ride it for 18,226 km you should eventually end up somewhere near Cape Town in South Africa. And that’s exactly what we did. After 326 days, 17 countries, an inordinate amount of coca-cola and a few hiccups along the way, we rolled into Cape Town Waterfront today on the same bicycles that departed Kashgar in mid-May last year. Bodies and bikes are still in one piece after taking a bit of a hammering over the last eleven months, though crucially, the marriage is still intact.

Our final route.

One of the most frequent questions we’ve encountered over the last few months is what we consider to have been the hardest part of our trip. Without a doubt, the most difficult part of this journey for us was deciding to start it. This required giving up our jobs, forgoing income for a year, locking up our possessions in a warehouse and deciding to sacrifice almost all of our savings; all of which seemed very counter intuitive at this stage of life.

Was it all worth it? Absolutely.

Job done.

Some Thanks…

A few words of thanks are necessary at this point, to the people who have helped make the last year pass as smoothly as it has.

Firstly, to our expedition chief Tom Rock, who has diligently watched over our progress since day one and who has juggled his responsibility of becoming a first-time father with tracking our slow progress during the last year. Excellent work Tom, you can take tomorrow off.

To the several folks who helped provide security information as we approached some of the more dubious countries. Specifically, to Brian Beckett and staff at Plan International, Jon Williamson and the security advisors at BG Group, and to Tim McNeill at MI6. Collectively, you managed to cut a relatively smooth path for us.

Thanks also to the many people who have seen us at various stages along the way, usually providing a much-needed bed, a feed and a drink, including:

Imogen and his family in Osh Guesthouse, for your invaluable help in getting us on our feet and on our way. To Jane and Haydn Johnson for sharing the joys of Istanbul with us and shipping almost an entire bicycle in their suitcase. To our most frequently met companions: Jos and Gary. Tristan, Phillipa & Jamie for a wonderful evening of whiskey and good chat in Nanyuki. To Victor for his invaluable wheel fixing connections. Jon and Jude for the Christmas Fajitas in Nairobi. The superb hospitality and New Year celebrations shared with Claire and Niall in Arusha (and of course our very memorable Crater experience). To Nicky at Kisolanza Farm for transforming an overnight stop into three nights of great food and comfort. Neels and Georg at the Kings Highway for all the information and connections south of Zambia, and to Moses for welcoming us to his family home.

To Colin and Natasha in Lusaka for a weekend of good times (and oddly, shoes). Paul & Irena and all at the Mkushi Country Club, for showing unbelievable levels of hospitality and kindness to two complete strangers. To  Jocasta & Barbara for a weekend of sheer indulgence on the banks of the Zambezi. To Murrae & Miles Godbold for introducing us to the wonders of the Chobe River, and finally, to Duncan and Cath for our stay in Swakopmund and the home-cooked Michelin star cuisine.

The Finish…

Thank you also to all of those that showed up today at Cape Town Waterfront and provided what turned out to be a fitting end to this journey. We appreciate it.

Thanks to you all. Here’s to the next chapter.

Closing in

As we cycled over the Orange River into South Africa, we could immediately sense crossing a frontier into this most famous of African nations; we could almost taste the exquisite wines, almost feel the immense sporting pride and almost hear the frustrations toward an inept government. The more tangible indicator however, was the much welcomed distance marker to Cape Town, which signaled the final of the many mileage countdowns we have entertained ourselves with over the past few months. The tarmac roads of the north were a welcome relief, although the surprisingly tricky hills we could have done without at this stage of the trip. We left the barren north behind and headed for the rugged and beautiful west coast which has delivered us both excellent seafood and sunsets.

There she is…

Sunset over Doringsbay.

We have now climbed our last hill, ridden our last un-tarred road and eaten our final meal of pasta con chicken stock cube – only some of which we will miss. Having spent the last year concerning ourselves with questions of where we will sleep for the night and where our next meal will come from, it’s a little daunting to be re-entering into a world where admission of these two questions will stand you out as a quite incompetent individual. For now though, we have the joys of some pleasant – albeit windy – beach camps to reflect on how exactly we got here.

The Western Cape…toward our finish.

 

The Fish River Canyon

Namibia’s Fish River has a few unique attributes. Firstly, there is water running down it, which, based on our experience of this country, is a rarity.  Secondly, it lays claim to be Namibia’s longest river, although given the aforementioned observation, doesn’t exactly face stiff competition in this department. The most notable feature of the Fish River however, is the canyon that bears its name.

We had debated up until the final moments of tackling the gravel tracks and unfavourable winds, whether or not it was all going to be worth the effort. Though thankfully upon arrival, the Fish River Canyon did not disappoint. Although playing second fiddle to the Grand Canyon of Arizona in terms of scale (a fact boasted on numerous information boards), it certainly still carries a fair bit of grandeur itself. The canyon made for some spectacular viewing and would serve as a thoroughly worthwhile geology field trip, if that’s your thing.

Fairly Grand…

The tourist lookout.

This has not been our friend in Namibia. In fact, it has taken part of our soul!

A fitting end to what has been a rewarding country to ride through. Certainly, Namibia can be considered – and has often been referred to – as ‘Africa for beginners’ or ‘Africa Light’, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It probably represented one of the most hassle-free months of our trip and is likely why we were so reluctant to leave. Grand(ish) canyons aside, given the excellent hospitality (that seemed to thoroughly appreciate the calorie needs of a cyclist), the peaceful solitude of nearly the entire country, and the excellent camp spots, a lot of good came from Namibia for us.

South from here.

 

The Namibian Kicker

As we entered the penultimate country of this ride, we lulled ourselves into a false sense of being close to our finish line. A quick calculation though, revealed that we still had one-sixth of our total mileage to cover and Namibia it turns out, is not particularly conducive to swift travel by bicycle. This is a country with only two million inhabitants and for context; Ethiopia is of a similar size but has squeezed around 100 million people within its borders. Depending on your information source, this place is second only to Mongolia as the most sparsely populated country on earth. Simply put, there is an awful lot of nothingness in Namibia.

Our entry and introduction to this country was the Caprivi Strip, an odd extension of land to the northeast which seems like it should probably belong to someone else. In fact it did formerly belong to someone else, before Herr von Caprivi negotiated with the Brits for the land to be annexed for German Colonisation efforts, in order to allow access to the Zambezi. It seems odd that it still exists as such today and from what we could tell, serves only to provide a 400km introduction before arriving at the actual country.

Animal sightings on the Caprivi: much promised, nothing delivered.

Some of the locals.

Our route towards the west coast was spectacular and ultimately provided some cooler weather, our first sighting of an ocean since Egypt, and a much-needed bike repair shop. Once re-stocked, we departed for what would prove to be some of the thirstiest miles of our entire trip. Attempting to carry enough water for the inland leg toward the isolated stopover of Solitaire was entirely futile, as we came to rely heavily on passing motorists to top up supplies who thankfully – out of sympathy or otherwise – were pleased to oblige. Even with such generosity, this was not an easy few days and as we fell asleep each night under the remarkably still and silent desert sky, the recurring thoughts occupying our minds were all water related.

Early mornings to avoid the heat.

Breaking through the tropics.

Embarking on the inland journey from the coast.

Despite the relationship-testing conditions though, there is much to be taken from Namibia. Firstly, this country stands as a fine example of how beautiful a place can remain when we humans don’t mess it up. What’s more, the historic German influence – although fairly indefensible in its origins – has left behind a legacy of some hearty German cuisine and fine beer. Not ideal for desert crossings on a bicycle, but when we return in an air-conditioned motor home, we’ll certainly indulge.