South Africa: Johannesburg

After collecting my PCR result in Lobatse, I headed to KFC to use up the last of my Pula. From there I returned to the border. This time it went a lot more smoothly and soon I was riding away into South Africa.

The South African side seemed to be a bit hillier. The road was still quite flat but there was a bit more of a view.

The first town I reached was Zeerust. Being used to the rest of Africa, it seemed pretty wealthy. At the supermarket perhaps as many as a quarter of the people were white – this is the first country in a while where I could be mistaken for a local! (Ish)

A feature of the town and, I would later find out, most South African towns, was a high prevalence of 4-way stops. These are not used in many countries and I had to Google them to remember what I was supposed to do!

On the way out of the town was a visible sign of South Africa’s famous inequality, in the form of a slum. Here people lived in shacks made from corrugated metal. This seemed a more extreme sense of inequality than I’d seen elsewhere.

The road I took away from Zeerust was a quiet one, leading up into some hills. I’d been riding for a couple hours when it suddenly ceased to be paved.

I rode along for another hour or so before setting up camp. There were no gaps in the fence and, where possible, I prefer not to just climb over. I set up my tent behind a tree, fairly well hidden by the long grass.

It was raining at dawn the next day, so I had a delayed start. While dozing, I dreamed that the road would turn to tarmac sooner than the 40km my map suggested.

Shockingly, despite the fact I’d dreamed it, this did not turn out to be the case. I slowly rode along the often washboard road, hoping my rear tyre would survive. It was in a pretty bad state.

I reached a paved road again at Koster and, after a supermarket stop, continued along. I was heading toward Johannesburg, where I hoped to replace my tyre. I had a look online and found a shop that claimed to stock the model I wanted. I called them up, and asked if they did. I didn’t quite catch what the guy said: “we have …. or ….” It sounded like they didn’t have what I wanted, and were offering alternatives. When I asked him to repeat it, it turned out they did have the exact tyre I wanted, and were offering me a choice of colours! That was very different to shopping for bike parts in the rest of Africa.

It was a Saturday afternoon and the bike shop closed early, and would be closed again on Sunday. I stopped at a campsite, and took a rest day there as well. In the UK, campsites are one of the few places where cash is often still required. Here, not only did they accept card, they didn’t even accept cash!

One of the few productive things I did during my rest day was to swap my rear tyre, replacing it with what had been my front tyre up until Zambia. The tread was almost completely off the tyre and I wasn’t confident it would even last the remaining 40km to the bike shop.

To be fair, it has lasted over ten days…

When it came time to leave on Monday morning, I was ready to set off at about 6.30. There was a problem though: the campsite gate was locked. There was a high fence, topped either with electrical fencing or spikes, so climbing over wasn’t a sensible option.

I had a bit of a look around but was unable to find another way around. I set about searching for someone to open it, which took a while. When I finally found someone, they sent me to another person, and then another. Finally the gate was unlocked and I could ride away. This is something I’ve had an issue with on other continents but generally in Africa people have been awake as early as I am.

I made my way towards Johannesburg, generally going uphill – at 1800m, the city is higher than anywhere I’ve been for a while. I stopped at the bike shop, technically not in Johannesburg but in an adjacent city, Krugersdorp. I bought my tyres, and a few other things. The mechanic fitted my tyres for me, and I ended up having a few more jobs done, which took a very long time.

The brake and head cables were replaced along with much of the housing. Noticing that my derailleur hanger was the wrong one (having been made to fit by an Indian with an angle grinder), they replaced it – I was surprised they had the right one in stock. They also cleaned my bike, which completely changed the colour of the frame bag. Unfortunately I wasn’t supervising closely when they replaced the bar tape and the mechanic rerouted my gear cables in such a way that they would be in the way of the frame bag. Because of the way he’d rerouted them, the housing was too long, and had to be cut. This meant recalibrating the derailleurs as well. He’d also, somewhat bizarrely, routed the brake cables so that they were on top of the handlebars, so I asked him to sort that.

Finally, about four hours later, I got back to cycling. After some food from a supermarket, my next stop was decathlon, 40 kilometres away. This meant riding past the centre of Johannesburg, through some slums on the fa side and then a couple kilometres of grass before entering another city in this extended urban area.

Classic bike lane, full of parked vehicles

As usual I bougt several things in Decathlon. Replacing my water bladder turned out to be awkward. The first staff member I asked couldn’t find them. She asked another person, who told us to go to the backpacking aisle, find the black backpack in the middle, and look there. Well of course, why hadn’t I checked there before?

It was now rush hour so there was more traffic on the road when I left Decathlon. I was finding South African traffic to be quite unpleasant. I don’t imagine the drivers are worse than elsewhere in Africa, but the rest of the continent does a pretty good job of having hard shoulders on busy roads. They were not common in this part of South Africa, and people here have no concept of a safe passing distance. Perhaps most infuriating were the truck drivers who did occasionally pull over to pass me, but seem completely oblivious as to the length of their vehicle. As soon as the driver was past me they would move back over and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid being crushed by the back of the truck.

Since I’d spent so long at the bike shop I wouldn’t be able to make it out of the urban area. There was a hotel in the town of Springs which, at a price of £14, was cheap by South African standards, so I made my way there.

After a late start the next morning I set off and, after a while, returned to the countryside. The road I was on was a secondary road, with a parallel highway slightly to the south. Perhaps because the highway had tolls, this road still had a fair bit of traffic.

Later in the day it merged with the highway and riding became a lot more pleasant because there was (usually) a shoulder to ride in.

The road was fenced on both sides and I’d planned to take a dirt alternative in the hope of finding somewhere to camp. As luck would have it, there was an area of wild bushes and long grass right next to the turnoff, and no fence on the dirt road. I made my way in and set up camp.

After riding for not much more than an hour the next morning, I reached the town of Ermelo. I headed to the hospital and took a PCR test. It was cheaper than most I’ve taken recently, at 500 Rand (£25). I was told to come back at midday for the result.

In the meantime I went to the supermarket, and then to the optician’s to get some contact lenses. I then found some shade under a tree and sat down to wait. My tent had been soaked from the dew this morning, so I hung it on my bike to dry.

Midday came and went without the text message informing my result was ready. At 1.30, I decided to just go back and ask. They said it would take about 30 minutes and, an hour later, I received my result. I was then told I could have collected the result at the border if I wanted! Still, it had only been about a 6 hour wait which isn’t too bad.

I set off cycling again, riding through farmland. As usual, fences lines both sides of the road. I’d been keeping an eye out the whole afternoon of riding, and had seen no good options for wild camping. Then, shortly before sunset, I reached a patch of woodland. There was still a fence between it and the road, but an ungated track ran away from the road, beside the trees. There as no fence between the track and the woods, so I made my way in there and set up the tent.

Feb 18: 127 km

Feb 19: 117 km

Feb 21: 115 km

Feb 22: 145 km

Feb 23: 80 km

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