South Africa, for the third time

It rained through much of the night, and was still drizzling in the morning, which made it easy to delay setting off. After mountainous Lesotho, merely hilly South Africa could almost seem flat. Almost.

Rolling hills were the norm for the day, starting immediately. Traffic was initially very busy but thankfully that dropped off after a couple of hours.

After a few hours I reached Mount Fletcher, a town where I stopped at a ShopRite to stock up on food. It thankfully wasn’t as busy as the last ShopRite I went to.

In the afternoon the clouds started getting thicker and lower, and at one point I rode through the cloud.

It wasn’t a warm day to begin with, and when it started to rain it was quite cold. I stubbornly resisted stopping to get my coat on, hoping the rain would stop. It didn’t, and after about two hours of being cold and wet I finally put on a coat.

It briefly looked like the rain was going to stop then, but it didn’t. The coat at least meant I wasn’t feeling too cold, though.

The town of Ugie was the last I would pass through that day, so I stopped to stock up on water. I also gave in to the temptation to get some chips at a supermarket. The staff, impressed that I was cycling in the rain, kindly brought me a crate to sit on and eat them in the shop. Incidentally, supermarkets doubling as chip shops is one of the best things ever and more countries need to follow South Africa’s lead on this.

I rode on another hour or so. I stopped a bit earlier than usual, at about half an hour before sunset – it had been raining for about 5 hours at that point. I was cycling past forests so I just found an open gate and made my way in to a clear spot to set up the tent. My cold hands meant it took a little longer than usual.

My down jacket and wool socks saw their first use in many months, as I slept in them. Since my air mattress is only torso length, I used my towel and sleeping bag liner to keep my sleeping bag off the floor. It was about 8°C so once I’d dried and warmed up it was a comfortable night.

It rained most of the way through the night but was dry at dawn. My riding clothes were of course still soaked though. I wore my spare socks and shorts, and replaced my jersey with a t-shirt and merino baselayer. Although it was no longer raining, there was still a lot of water on the road.

It remained cloudy so it was slow to warm up. Late in the morning I took off my baselayer and later I swapped back to my wet clothes, to dry them with my body heat. The rest of my things I tried to dry by hanging them from the handlebars.

The day was generally uneventfully; drying out my clothes was my main focus for the day. I continued along typical rolling hills, on a pleasantly quiet road.

In the afternoon the road trended upwards, and late in the afternoon the clouds began to disperse. The sun even made an appearance.

In the evening the clouds disappeared almost entirely as I rode up into the mountains. A cloudy day, a cloudless night and high altitude was a recipe for a cold night!

I rode until sunset. There were some bushes by the road, enough to hide the tent. Being South Africa, there were of course fences, but t!l  l   here was also a conveniently located stile, though there was a cable at a height of about 1.5m, so I had to lift the bike practically overhead. At least there was no barbed wire.

It was indeed a cold night, dropping down to about 5°C. Still, I much prefer being cold to bring hot, and it was good to finally get some use out of the clothes that had been in the bottom of my saddle bag for so long. It warmed up quickly when the sun came out, though. I left the tent up for a bit so it could dry out for the first time in several days.

The day started off with some hills before dropping down and then flattening out, such that the afternoon had some of the least climbing I’ve had in a long time.

There were lots of roadworks. Perhaps because the road was so quiet, they often blocked off much more of the road than was being worked on – sometimes 10km was blocked, and only a few hundred metres being worked on. This meant I could mostly ride on the empty, blocked off side.

There were lots of small stones around due to the work. These were flung around by the wheels of passing cars, often resulting in a bit of a hail around me. One particularly large stone struck me in the arm which stung quite a bit but didn’t leave a mark.

It was another generally uneventful day, at the end of which I hopped over a gate and set up camp in an unused field. It was a noticably warm night, and my warm clothes stayed in the saddle bag.

A thick fog blanketed the land the next morning. I was glad for the roadworks which gave me my own space to ride while the visibility was so poor.

After a flat 25 kilometres I reached the town of Middelburg. I had some paperwork to do so, after visiting a supermarket, I went to a stationary shop where I could print and scan documents.

Once I’d finished there, I set off riding south. I was now on a somewhat busier road. It wasn’t particularly busy, just more so than the very quiet road I’d been on before.

I was now very much in the Karoo, the big semi-desert that covers most of southwestern South Africa. It was quite desolate, with a gap of 100km to the next settlement. To begin, the road climbed up into the mountains.

From the pass there was a long descent, ultimately going down below 700m. Along the way, though, there were a few short climbs. In a dip before the first of these, I saw something which I initially thought was a dust cloud. When I got closer, I found it was locusts.

This swarm was about 3 kilometres across. They mostly flew about 2 metres above the ground, above head height – but there were enough flying lower that I was frequently being hit by them. The road was littered with dead locusts that had been hit by cars.

Over the next hour or so I passed a few more swarms of locusts. These other swarms were smaller, less dense and flew higher above the ground – so they weren’t so unpleasant to cycle through. I continued making my way down out of the mountains.

I reached the town of Graaff-Reinet, the end of the long gap between towns. I rode on through and out the other side.

Once the sun set, I began looking for somewhere to camp. As usual the fences made it difficult. When I passed a dry stream, I stopped to see if there would be a gap under the fence. There wasn’t, but the culvert through which the stream ran under the road turned out to be just big enough for my tent – if I pitched it diagonally.

I was now down at quite a low altitude – 700m or so – and the cold spell was well and truly over. That meant I could comfortably get up and pack away the tent well before dawn. I started cycling as soon as it got light.

I arrived into the town of Aberdeen at about 7.15, and filled up on water at a petrol station. After Aberdeen there was a gap of 120km to the next town. I had enough food for that, but I wanted to buy more so I didn’t have to ration it. I saw a couple people waiting outside a big supermarket, and thought it might open soon. Unfortunately, I saw that it did not open until 8. Fortunately, someone saw me looking at the opening times and pointed me to a smaller supermarket that was already open.

I had about an hour or so of undisturbed riding out of Aberdeen. And then I hit the first locust swarm. I thought there were a lot the day before, but here… At one point a swarm lasted for 13km. After 2km of locustlessness, the next swarm was 10km across. Most of the next few hours was spent inside a locust swarm.

Generally they flew at least 2 metres above the ground so I was only occasionally struck in the face by a particularly low-flying locust. Sometimes, though, they flew much lower and so I was continually bombarded as the swarm tried to fly through me. I was very glad to be wearing sunglasses, though I’d have quite liked a full-face helmet and a buckler!

I passed through some hills where a dam had created a small lake. There wasn’t much water visible in the Karoo, though there’s enough underground for people and animals to live off.

I was quickly out of these hills and then, before long, up into some mountains. These provided no respite from the locusts.

The descent out of the mountains featured a particularly dense swarm. They were flying diagonally relative to the road – that is, partly towards me. I had to ride slowly because when I coasted quickly down the hill, the barrage of locusts hitting me in the face was painful.

The town of Willowmore provided a bit of a respite. I went to the supermarket and took a bit of a break in the shade before heading out of town on a gravel road.

There’s a bikepacking route, “The Dragon’s Spine,” that runs across South Africa. Like most bikepacking routes, it’s just a route somebody rode once and published – no markers or anything. Still, I’d planned to ride some of it. First, though, my route was determined by PCR tests and finding borders that had reopened since Covid. Then, there was heavy rain and I didn’t much want to ride in mud. Then, the route took a particularly long detour to avoid a relatively quiet tarmac road, which I didn’t want to do. Now, after several days of easy riding on tarmac, I’m ready for something more interesting.

Locusts

I rode along the dirt road for a couple more hours, during which time I saw no vehicles. I therefore wasn’t much worried about finding somewhere to camp. I continued riding past sunset.

As it got dark I lifted my bike over a gate and hopped over myself. This area turned out to be absolutely covered in ants. I found this out when I stood still and within seconds they were crawling up my legs. There was a dry riverbed nearby and I reasoned there were unlikely to be ants there as they’d get washed away if it rained. This was correct, and so I set up camp there.

Mar 14: 168 km

Mar 15: 151 km

Mar 16: 164 km

Mar 17: 161 km

Mar 18: 202 km

2 thoughts on “South Africa, for the third time

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