I’m not sure the word normal can properly be applied to people cycling across Africa. If it can, then Cape Town is normally either the beginning or the end point of such journeys. For me, though, it’s the halfway point.
My plan is to head back towards Europe, this time going via the west of Africa rather than the east. This route is less frequently travelled and involves a lot more visa bureaucracy. The countries here have also been a lot slower to open back up again since Covid.
Things are opening up gradually. Even those countries which are officially still closed, seem to let some tourists in. I know of a motorcyclist heading north, who has got as far as Nigeria. There are some overlanders coming south, who’ve also reached Nigeria. Put together, these make the trip seem feasible.
Nigeria is a long way away though, so I began by cycling out of Cape Town. The first day of riding was a short one, just 30 kilometres to a campsite near Stellenbosch. I’d purchased a new tent and had it sent there. The main difference from my old tent is that it can be set up with just the inner part. This’ll be much more pleasant in hotter climates, as there’ll be more air circulation. West Africa is generally lower altitude (i.e. hotter) than the east, so this should be useful.
I spent a day at the campsite, then set off, beginning the long ride north. After an hour or so of riding through towns, I made it out to the countryside. Here there was nothing to stop the strong headwind, and my progress slowed significantly.
I rode on, slowly making my way north, passing through the occasional village or town. One had the rather charming name of Atlantis. As I approached it, I passed through the poorer district at the town’s edge. Someone ran out towards me – not exactly uncommon in Africa. He seemed like he was going to run in front of me and I braked. The guy lunged, managed to grab my phone off it’s handlebar mount, and ran off through a gap in the wall.
These sorts of places are typically gang territory and sure enough a group of the thief’s friends blocked me from trying to go after him. I tried asking others if they knew the thief or where he’d had gone, but it was clear they were lying to me. I went back to the road.
I did manage to get the phone back, within about an hour of it being taken. The short version goes something like this: I went with a group of armed men to the house of the local gang leader, who was intimidated into arranging the return of my phone.
Okay, I guess I should give the long version as well.
A woman came up to me and started walking with me towards the police station. She told me the guy’s name, but didn’t want to be seen walking with me, so she said she’d meet me at the police station. It almost didn’t seem worth going to the police station as it didn’t seem likely they could do anything, but I decided I may as well try. I accidentally went in via a back exit rather than the main entrance. I asked a guy who worked there where I should go to report a theft, and he led me to some uniformed officers.
They showed me somewhere secure to leave my bike, and asked where the incident had happen. “About a kilometre that way,” I said. “Alright, let’s go,” was the reply. “We’ll take an unmarked vehicle so they don’t scatter.”
And so I returned to the scene of the crime, this time with three police officers. The same people were still hanging around there when we arrived. They did scatter when we arrived. The police seemed to know who was in charge, and we followed him to his house.
And so I ended up standing outside the house of the local gang leader, while three policeman spoke to him in Afrikaans. Once the officers were finished speaking to him we returned to the car. They were very confident the phone would be brought to the police station, and we returned there.
I waited by the front desk for a while. The woman I’d spoken to earlier showed up but she was nervous. I told her it wasn’t worth putting herself at risk, and thanked her; she left. I hope she’s alright.
Another police officer spoke to me and didn’t seem to know what was going on with the other officers. It really did seem a bit bizarre that I was supposed to just get wait for a criminal to bring stolen property to a police station. I went to look for the officer who’d seemed in charge when we went to the gang leader’s house. It took a few minutes but when I found him, he was coming back to where he’d told me to wait… With my phone in his hand!
He explained that these guys make most of their money from dealing drugs, and he’d told their leader that unless my phone was returned, they’d park police cars around his area. That’d lose him far more in drug money than my phone was worth, so he had it sent to the station.
I sincerely thanked the policemen; I really hadn’t expected to get my phone back, especially so quickly – it had been less than an hour since it was taken. It definitely gave me a lot to think about as I rode on. To begin with, the way they’d helped me – maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t imagine someone living in that township would have got that service. I wonder if there’s some sort of implied agreement where they don’t go after the gang too harshly, as long as their activities don’t extend outside their community.
I passed through one more town – a smaller, more prosperous one – and after that I rode through a huge expanse of nothingness.
I continued on for a few more hours, stopping in the evening at a petrol station to fill up on water. There was a backpackers (as hostels are called in South Africa) a couple km from the road, and I headed over there. However, they had closed due to Covid. Somebody recommended me some other accommodation, but it was 10km the wrong way. I got back to the main road and continued north, looking for somewhere to wild camp.
I considered and discarded several possibilities for camping, before reaching a turnoff to a dirt road. After passing through an open gateway, one side of the road was unfenced. The bushes were thick and my legs were somewhat scratched by the time I’d pushed through to a clear space.
The nights were relatively cold here, generally dropping to around 10°C. It was enough that I wore my coat when I set off the next morning as I rode toward the town of Velddrif. I stopped there to buy food and a sim card – my old one had been ditched by the thief yesterday.
Out of town I rode along the coast for a little while. At times the road was unfenced, a real rarity for South Africa.
I took a shortcut at one point along a railway service road. There was a sign saying it was a private road, with a permit required. I’ve read that cyclists are allowed to use them though.
I returned to tarmac and after a while I headed inland, climbing slightly.
Past the town of Graafwater I was back on to an unpaved road for a few hours.
Apart from a easily repaired puncture I rolled along relatively quickly thanks to a tailwind. I’d been heading gradually uphill, which led to a steeper descent to the main road, the N7.
It was getting late so after a few kilometres along the N7 I turned off to a campsite. They also served food and I had a very good pizza there.
I was a little later than usual setting off, so the sun had already risen and I didn’t need my coat. I set off along the N7, the road which I would be following for the next couple of days. The cycling was very uneventful: empty desert with long gaps between villages.
After a day which provided very little to write about, I needed to find somewhere to camp. There was a stream marked on the map which I thought was likely to be a good site. It wasn’t completely dry, but there was just a trickle of water going through one of the bridge’s five arches. I set up camp under another arch.
The road climbed a fair bit the next day, providing some change of scenery.
At one point I saw a parked car, with the driver walking around seemingly searching for something. He flagged me down and asked for an empty bottle. It wasn’t totally clear but I got the impression his low fuel indicator had come on, and he had some spare fuel in the boot but no way to get it into the tank. I poured the water from a bottle into the bladder in my handlebar bag, and handed over the bottle.
Other than that there’s not much to say about the day’s riding. In the evening, I reached the town of Springbok. I decided to treat myself to some KFC and detoured through the town to pick up the food before heading to a campsite.
I set off a little later than usual the next day, at about 8am; I had a short day planned. I rolled along for about 50km, including a short uphill and then some downhill.
On a downhill stretch I got a puncture from a pretty big thorn. The air escaped so quickly the tyre was completely flat by the time I’d stopped. As a result the thorn was able to go all the way through tube and puncture it on both sides, needing two patches to fix.
I reached the town of Steinkopf and made my way to a lodge. With a price of 200 Rand (£10) this was pretty good value for South Africa. I had the afternoon off and decided to take a rest day here as well.
Mar 28: 31 km
Mar 30: 154 km
Mar 31: 155 km
Apr 1: 141 km
Apr 2: 153 km
Apr 3: 50 km