12-South Africa cycling trip in karoo


The journey from London to Cape Town – through some of the most desolate and savage terrain’s, poverty stricken and politically unstable democracies of Africa – had become an alluring expedition for many travellers.

Imagine experiencing this adventure by bicycle, having to expend your physical energy, at a pace not much faster than an ox cart and slow enough to become involved in the daily lives of the villagers? The 25 000 kilometres, 14 border crossings riddled with bureaucracy, the biggest desert in the world – the Sahara, tropical jungles, military convoys and 62 punctures, had become more than a challenge. For me and my cycling companions, Louise Tong and Erik Feenstra it was an opportunity to explore remote regions inaccessible by vehicles, immerse ourselves in the rich and unique cultures that co-exist in our continent and a chance to discover what it means to be AfricaThe adventure was about forsaking the comfortable sofa of civilisation, learning to survive on instincts and dealing with life on a more fundamental level.The trip was to raise funds and public awareness for the registered organisation “Survival International”. The organisation champions the plight of tribal people around the world whose existence is being threatened by the encroachment of modern cultures, globalisation and the demands on our natural environments in the unceasing search for resources.It was the night before embarking on the most severe part of the trip. The smoke from our small fire curled up into the deadly quiet night. A lone jackal howled in the distance. We shared our meal of lentils with a passing nomadic old man who was out herding his goats. He was wearing only a loincloth and his skin was rough and calloused from years of living in this harsh environment. I sat mending my worn back tire with needle and thread, while we made strategic plans of how to avoid the military post.

Lake Turkana, the largest and most northern of the Rift Valley lakes, borders on the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Sudanese border. Our major obstacle was the Ethiopian Police who forbid foreigners from entering this region. Paying our way across this border was the only bribe we had to pay on the whole trip! The other obstacle was to navigate our route along the lake, which is surrounded by volcanic lava beds with little or no vegetation, equipped with only hand drawn maps from the locals. The alkaline water from the lake was barely drinkable, so we each had to carry 20 litres of water as well as enough food to last the two weeks. The decision to take the route along this desert lake was not an easy one to make, we however all made a pact to be totally prepared and committed both mentally and physically to the intrepid expedition as our survival depended on each other.

The region around Lake Turkana has become famous as one of the great sources of evidence of man’s earliest existence. A 1.6 million years old skeleton, a specimen of the Homo Erectus called the “Turkana boy” was found in this region. These days only a few tribal groups, who have adjusted to the desert heat, roam these arid plains.

Soon we got our first glimpse of Lake Turkana; the Jade Sea as it is also known as. A flock of flamingos took off upon our arrival. We took a sigh of relief that we had finally arrived in Kenya, but still had a long hard way to go. Being bogged down by sand and plagued by punctures hampered our progress. At one stage, we thought we would die, not from a lack of water, but from a shortage of inner-tube patches. We resorted to cutting each patch up into tiny pieces, and in this way, mend all our punctures. The dwindling road had deteriorated so badly from the relentless wind that howled across the arid plains that we lost our way numerous times. A few nomadic Desonage, who wear mud and feathers in their hair would come to the rescue and lead us back onto the track. Their villages look like a clump of roll bushes from a distance, but as we approached we could see that they were made of grass and skins stretched over, almost like desert igloos. Only a few fish and goat bones litter their villages. No such thing as plastic.

The sun was unbearably hot; we would push our bikes through the sand from the shade of one thorn tree to the next. I had a few scratches from thorn bushes that had started to turn septic, but we didn’t have enough water for these hygienic purposes, only enough to survive. We even had to resort to digging water out of the dry riverbeds with a calabash, the way the locals do. The thought of getting to Illeret and drinking a cold coke was the only thing that drove us forward. Eventually, by the next afternoon, we saw houses on the hilltop in the horizon. We took turns helping each other push our bikes through the last riverbed and up a steep sandy ridge. Two little children walking along the path with buckets on their heads took one look at us and ran off dropping their loads on the way. Our request for coke was met with laughter as we later found out that the only thing to purchase in this small police outpost town, was goats meat!

With the assistance of the Military police and a fresh supply of their truck patches, we arranged to cross the ferociously tempered Lake Turkana. The crossing in a flimsy fishing boat cost the same price as what 3000 dried telapia fish would fetch in Loyalung on the other side. Once the howling wind had subsided and a peaceful calm pervaded the boat; the fishermen stopped hauling and hoisting, and instead sat back and lit home-grown tobacco pipes and started singing the most beautiful tribal tunes that deep resonance echoed across the still water.

When I first came about the idea of cycling home to Cape Town through Africa, I approached Louise, a Chinese-Australian friend whom I’d recently met while living in London. Other than both being Accountants, we shared a love for knobblies, spokes and pedals and a yearning to explore the unknown. She has a strong vibrant personality and someone I felt I could trust in extreme circumstances. Her immediate response was yes, as long as we cycle from London to Hong Kong, her birth city, sometime in the future!

In August 1998, after a year of fund-raising, researching and planning we eventually left from Trafalgar Square waving good-bye to a group of friends who had come to see us off. If only we knew what our bright spanking new panniers and bikes would look like a few months down the road.

In Gibraltar, we met our Guardian angel, disguised as a skinny eccentric Netherlander called Erik. He spontaneously decided to change his initial travel plans of cycling round Spain and Portugal, to include a detour via Cape Town. A lucky decision on our part as our bike repairs skills didn’t prove as good as we had hoped while practising in our back- yard in London.

My first memory of ‘free’ camping in Africa was in the Rif Mountains with a tribe of nomadic Bedouin Berbers. Close to sunset, we pushed our bikes over to where a white robed shepherd boy was herding his flock and asked to put our tent up next to their hand-stitched sheep skin dwelling. He agreed and it wasn’t long before all the women and children came out to greet us, first by shaking our hands and then kissing their own. Our strange modern tents caused much amusement for the Berbers and we struggled to keep them out. After our meagre meal which we shared with the starving kids, we were invited into their tents to have nana-cha (mint tea). Erik joined the men in their tents and Louise and I were ushered into the Women’s. An elegant elderly lady was sitting on her haunches cooking cous-cous over a warm glowing fire. The smoke drifted through a gaping hole into the crisp night. She had a face, I will never forget – high cheekbones, sharp beady eyes, with huge gold earrings capping her weathered gypsy like face. Her continual pleas for money and medicine for her sick children made us feel very awkward, as we couldn’t help her. Eventually we managed to politely excuse ourselves and escape to our private sanctuary and breathed a sigh of relief when we finally zipped up the tent flaps.

In our boundless enthusiasm to see as much of Morocco as possible we pedalled over the High Atlas Mountains three times. First to explore the outlying region of Errachida and to climb Erg Chebbi on the Algerian border (the biggest sand dune in the Sahara). But we also wanted to visit the Marrakech back on the northern side of the Atlas. It’s Plaza Djejeema-el-Fna is renowned for its street theatre, traditional medicine men, storytellers, snake charmers and lantern-lit evening food stalls selling everything from smoked meats, curried sheep brains to freshly squeezed orange juice.

To cross into Mauritania we were forced to embark on a Military convoy, which escorted us through war-torn Western Sahara, which is littered with landmines. The convoy lacked the flashing lights and big machine guns that we imagined and instead consisted of two sandal-clad soldiers who climbed into the first vehicle with all our passports in his ‘Moroccan briefcase’ – a black plastic bag.

Noudibou, the only port in Mauritania, is a strange place. It is not linked to the capital by any road and so the only means of getting down south for us was a three kilometre- long industrial bucket train. It that leaves regularly to an iron ore mine stationed out in the middle of the Sahara in a place called Zourat. The train, a dusty desert dragon jerked and bumped us throughout the night. Because of the lack of buffers between the carriages, everytime the train stopped or started we would hear the familiar banging starting up front and getting closer until the banging and jerking would hit. Nevertheless, our adventurous candles ablaze with excitement, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible huddling together against the chill. Ten hours later we were dumped in what could be called the “ass end” of the world – Choum a sad and dirty place where shacks are built out of rail tracks, rude money grabbers linger and sickly snotty nosed kids beg.

Cycling through the endless barren landscape of the humbling Sahara was daunting. Knights of the Sahara, the blue-cloaked Tuaregs would pass us with their camel caravans and would offer us sweet camel’s milk. In Mauritania, slavery was only banned in 1981; but it seemed the custom still continues, as black slaves still herd the camels for their Masters. Water became a precious commodity and our lives revolved around getting to the next well which could be hundreds of kilometre’s down the track. Rationing myself to a sip of water every five kilometres, I thought dying of thirst must the most horrendous death. Starvation is much more bearable. After sunset when the incessant heat of the day abated, we relaxed around a little campfire, the Sahara became the most peaceful and harmonious place under the stars.

The allure about Timbuktu (‘Tombouctou’ in French) is the journey getting there rather than the final destination. Our original plan to get there for New Years celebrations was delayed. Being on ‘African time’, everything moves at a much slower pace. After recovering from a short bout of illness, we bargained with a Pinasse captain to transport up the Niger River. A Pinasse is a 25 metre long wooden cargo vessels, arched branches from side to side covered with thick grass matting. Meals for the passengers were cooked on a huge cauldron over an open wooden fire. Our Pinasse was transporting cement, maize and furniture to small Bozo villages dotted all the way to Timbuktu. Together with the other passengers, we had to find the most comfortable spot to endure the three to six day trip! Most of the time we spend sitting on the roof, hoping to be the first person to spot a hippo. From now on, we will always have an African New Years Celebration on the 24th of January!

We had been cycling through Sub-Sahel French West Africa for five months, most of the time in strong Harmattan desert winds. It was most exciting to eventually arrive in English-speaking Ghana and to see the vegetation change from dry savannah to dense canopies of tropical Jungles from which strange noises sporadically emitted. Besides the Fetish rituals, old slave forts on the beaches and colourful markets filled with all sorts of strange delicacies such as fufu, yams, and plantains, it was the over-exuberance, friendliness and hospitality of the Ghanaians that made it the most memorable place. To describe all the friendly and fascinating stories of Ghana I would need to write a novel. Some strange incidents will always stick out in my mind though. For example, the time in Obausi, when the policeman who I first thought was going to give us a fine for cycling past the barrier couldn’t stop hugging us and giving us ice water. “Aah from South Africa, you are my African Sister then”. Or the time, a schoolboy going past on his bike said “Good Morning Sir. I think I shall come and help you.”

From Ghana we flew back in time to Ethiopia. It was the 15th April 1991 on the ancient Julian calendar, eight years behind the rest of the world. It might have been 100 years as the people live a primitive life, tilling the fields by oxen and carrying water in earthenware jars. From Addis Ababa, we cycled north along the historic route towards Lalibela, famous for its underground Rock Churches. The unforgiving gravel roads angrily wound their way over Mountains and through the Blue Nile gorge. The continual pestering and stone throwing by the children while we were pedalling our guts out was all too much to bear. After a few tearful episodes we opted for hitching on food-aid trucks driving into the interior.

From Nairobi, we headed down to Tanzania, cycling along the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. Following a small track marked on the map, we passed through a remote region – Maasai Steppe. The only information mentioned in our guidebook was that the region was relatively uninhabited due to the dreaded Tsetse fly! After our initial fear of venturing into the unknown, we encountered tribal Maasai unfamiliar with Westerners and our strange ways. Towards dusk, as the cattle were herded home, the low bellowing and sound of the clanking cow bells could be heard from the distance, we would approach a thorn enclosed ‘manyatta’. These proud warriors welcomed us into their mud dwellings and shared their meals of beef and sour milk. It was moments like these when I felt at total ease sitting around a wood fire while watching a elderly Maasai lady cooking, using all the traditional calabashes and wooden spoons, and cute chubby children sat pressed up against me, with their small elbows resting on my knees. We were even invited to build our own mud hut, where our tent stood, totally out of place in these odd surroundings.

Crossing the inaccessible Ruvoma River proved no problem for us. The bicycles were precariously balanced in dug-out canoes as we were poled across to Northern Mozambique. Bush camping was no longer possible, due to the civil war the land was plagued by remnants of landmines. Every evening, after a long days cycle we would approach the chief of a village and ask for permission to camp. Dependent on their hospitality we sampled local delicacies such as braaied monkey.

Due to visa difficulties at the Tete Corridor in Mozambique, we flew in a Supermarket cargo plane from Blantyre to Johannesburg. It was by no means the end of our trip and we spent another month cycling in South Africa. The last leg of our journey took us through the Karoo, visiting forgotten outback towns. In Rietbron chirps like “Maar waar gaat die fietsie wat so kwaai lyk!” amused us. If only they knew! The highlight was pedalling over the Prince Albert Pass through the indigenous Knysna forests. Still preferring to cycle on off road dirt- tracks, we meandered from Swellendam, through the Little Karoo, over the Franschoek pass and into Stellenbosch.

After 15 months in the saddle and having cycled 11000 kilometres, we finally realised our dreams and arrived in Cape Town. Getting a glimpse of Table Mountain again gave me goose flesh. However, our sense of achievement was mixed with sadness as our expedition had become a way of life. For we had after all become Pedalling Nomads.