Johannesburg in South Africa, that is where I continue this trip. After the arrival in the metropolis the first mission is to get out of town unharmed. In the north east I find some mountain ranges on my map. That is where I am heading first.
Cycling, even more on a public road, seems to be a totally unknown idea here. Most drivers react accordingly making it often very dangerous on the road. Soon I have left the town behind and find myself in the countryside. Big farms and wide fields dominate the landscape. Then those mountains actually do appear and how they do. I cross a couple of challenging passes of more that 2000m height until I reach Blyde Canyon. Come December the summer and thus the raining season has now started. Most of the rain is falling in heavy thunder storms that mostly happen in the afternoon after which the weather is usually quickly good again. No big problem for me then as long as I find some shelter at that time. Of course that does not always quite work out and a couple of time I am getting showered very thoroughly.
There are a couple of border crossings to Swaziland. I choose the one that looks most remote on my map. At the approach I already see what lies ahead: behind Barberton the hills formate to something like a wall. Over there I'v got to go. The folks in the gold mining town have not promised too much, the climb to the saddleback pass is brutally steep. Fortunately there is hardly any traffic and so I can cheat my way up using the whole width of the road. But then the show start off: Soon I am surrounded by clouds as black as coal. There is thunder and lightening all around my. I cycle through a deep, dark forest and the first few drops that fall, make the road steam like someone just forgot to turn of the hotplate. It is a dark, spooky scenery as if I was heading directly into hell. On top of the pass I almost duck my head to pass below the low hanging clouds. I can just go down a little further to find a save spot before the heaven opens up.
When to customs officer at the border next morning asks me where I plan to go today I tell him Mbabane the capital which lies only 70km away. After that reply he just laughs out loud. When I actually reach town that evening after some tough 8 hours and more than 2400 vertical meters accumulated on my odometer I know why he was doing so. I have hardly ever come across such a terrain. After every super steep climb there is a super steep descent, nothing else, constantly. Flat is something that simply does not exist in the north of Swaziland. But the scenery is just superb. Logging is a major industry here and so I constantly cycle through a wide, green forest. The valleys are now wonderfully green. Before Mbabane I pass Sibebe rock, apparently the largest granite outcrop in the world.
There are of course plenty of game reserves here in southern Africa and safaris are one of the main attraction to most tourists coming here. Usually I am not allowed to enter those parks for obvious reasons but here in Swaziland there are some parks where I am just allowed to do that. It is just fantastic to cycle over those wide plains while there are herds of zebras, antelopes, warthogs, gnus and many other creatures gracing just nearby. In the Hlane park I even get to see my fort elephants, rhinos and hippos.
Back in South Africa I kill kilometers on the, for once rather flat, coastal road towards Durban where I dip my feet for the first time into the Indian Ocean.
My next goal is the Drakensberg. The warm up starts right at way out of town. While I cycle across the green hills towards Underberg, passing some forests along the way, I can see the rocky escarpment coming closer on the horizon. The Sani Pass at 2845m is the highest in South Africa. Crossing it I want to enter into Lesotho. The pass is mainly famous because of its steep and rough switch banks leading to the top.
Not that I need an extra challenge on top of that, but because I don't expect South Africa-style supermarkets in Lesotho, I fill my panniers with calorie-rich goodies at the foot of the pass. Well equipped that way, I start. The pass holds up to it's promises and poses a real challenge. I can cycle most of the way but the last switch banks are too steep and rough and I have to push the bike. Atop is 'The highest Pub of Africa' where I quickly get offered a beer by the spectators who saw me coming up the pass and still cannot believe their eyes.
In a little hut there are the customs of Lesotho and then I enter another world. No more fences, no trees, just endless wide plains and mountains. Lesotho, 'The Kingdom in the Sky', the highest country in the world (!), an enclave completely surrounded by South Africa, three quarter the size of Switzerland. These were attributes enough for me to look foreword to this country like hardly any other. I am not disappointed at all but totally taken from the very beginning. After taking in the first impression, things get serious and a brutally steep road leads up to a 3245m high pass. But that was only just the beginning as for the next days there is simply one climb after the other and every single one is very steep.
The first people I meet are shepherds. Covered in the blankets and wearing ski masks that only reveal eyes and mouth they look like rather dark figures. But as soon as I greet them I get a wide, friendly smile back. The Basotho are a proud people of shepherds and horsemen. With their ponies they can get everywhere in this mountainous land. Their little mountain villages are situated on steep, exposed mountain slopes made of Rondavels, round huts with straw roofs. Whenever I cycle past one of those villages I can hardly greet and wave back at everyone.
The next days are simply one long continuos dream for me. On a demanding but drivable dirt road I cycle over countless passes and climbs passing idyllic villages while I travel across the country. On the road I meet more horsemen then cars. After 4 days I reach the first sealed road. Lesotho is by no means rich on resources. The one thing they have in abundance is water. As part of a huge project some big dams have been built and as a side effect some of the countries roads have been improved.
If there is one thing that I really fear here, then it is the daily summer thunder storms. Every day after noon the clouds cumulate, darken until they are almost black and then the massive lighting and thunders start so violently making me wish to be well out of sight. Every year some shepherds get killed by the lightning. The very first night I get already a serious warning. After the bone shaking lightning and thunder it hails until the meadows are completely covered and white. The following rain is so heavy that my tent is soon flooded as the water cannot drain anymore. Because of that I don't camp on top of the passes as I would normally in a place like this but rather ask at the villages whether I can put up my tent next to their huts. In bigger places I can get a bed at so called Farmer Training Centers.
In the west close to the capital Maseru there is for half a day something like the only flat part before it starts all over again. On the way back to the east I follow the Orange River through a great canyon. On new years eve I camp just before the border. In the evening I have my very own firework made of a heavy thunder storm with some impressive lightning. After the exhausting day I am sound asleep at 20:00 already. On new years day I cross the border back to South Africa after 12 days at Qacha's Neck with, I admit it, tired legs. In the last 700km that I cycled through Lesotho I climbed no less than 16'000 vertical meters...
I admit it, it takes me longer than usual to feel comfortable here in South Africa. 19 years after abolishing apartheid South Africa is no more divided by race but all the more by class. The gap between the rich and the poor is massive. Every town that I cycle through is consisting of two worlds. There is on one side the well kept houses and shopping centers of the rich and not far there are the townships where the poor live in simple huts. Every property is secured like some military compound. The clash of this two so different worlds is something I have not experienced before.
At the moment I travel along the Wild Coast the past homeland of the Tanskei. It is one of the poorest and economically least developed region of the country. The villages are scattered wide across the now beautifully green grassland over this never-ending hillside. Interestingly I feel more comfortable in this region as the people are all very friendly. After all the mountains I refill my energy tanks at some of the great sandy beaches of the Wild Coast.
The Sunshine Coast doesn't live up to its name at all. That I cycle across East London in a drizzling rain somehow seems to fit but all along the coast it is often wet now. On good weather days on the other hand, the landscapes green is now very intense. Soon I find the right rhythm, cycling on wet days and enjoying the beaches at sunny days.
The mountains north of the coast have now become bigger until I cannot resist them anymore and leave the coast. I cycle over a pass inland where I find a complete different climate within only a few kilometers. In summer it is now very hot and dry here. Oudtshoorn is the self declared ostrich capital. Since 1860 the birds are bred here, when their feathers were as valuable as gold. Today they are mainly made to Biltong. A typical dry sausage, the perfect food for cyclists to carry around. And indeed, instead of cows I now soon see big herds of ostriches on the meadows.
When I heard the first time about 'The Hell' I knew instantly I had to go there. A little, isolated valley in the middle of the Swartberg Mountains, only reachable by a dirt road that starts at the Swartberg Pass. First I have to climb that pass. A great, classic old road that climbs in serpentines to the highest point. Just before that, a road turns off to 'The Hell'. A 50km long ride trough an uninhabited valley between two barren, rocky mountain ridges. Every now and then I can spot some game. But the main focus is on the track, that is very rough and unmercifully steep. At the very end the road drops right down into a valley at only 300m, totally surrounded by the high mountains - The Hell. As I cycle down the bumpy track at walking speed I have only one though: how on earth will I ever get up here?
I put up my tent and start searching for a cold beer that I soon find in the fridge of one of the few local farmers that live here. When I get back to the tent I can see the disaster already from far away. Baboons (monkeys) have invaded my tent and in the search of food spread my equipment all over the place. The hole in the inner tent is quickly sewn up and the lost food is not so bad. But that the creatures had to munch my valuable malaria tablets I take personal.
Well, now I am in hell, but how do I get back from here? I will have to climb 2000m and temperatures tomorrow will be over 40º again for sure. In the light of my head torch I pack my tent next morning and start cycling in the dark. That way I can do the worst climbs before the sun starts to heat up. Somehow I even manage to cycle up those impossibly steep climbs with loose gravel. Once over 1000m the sun is up too and soon burns down on me but a light breeze makes things bearable. At noon I have reached the Swartberg Pass. The views over the wide plains (Great & Little Karoo) is fantastic. When some tourists ask me where I come from today, I grin and answer ' From hell !'
In the next days I cycle on great dirt tracks and over some passes across the Little Karoo - perfect for cycling here. I pass many small villages and farms where time seems to go by slower.
The next mountain range its called Warmwaterberg, now that sounds promising. And so I actually sit in a Hot Pot the next day where I boil my tired muscles thoroughly. But not before I had a beer at Ronnie's Sex Shop. A unicum of a well known pub the kind that you only find in places like here or the Australian outback where it is a little bit too hot to think clearly.
With stormy winds and a dangerous angle I sail towards Cape Angulhas, the southernmost point of the African continent. Here the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean meet. Of course you cannot see much but the water is now clearly colder. No wonder it coming straight from the Antarctic.
The next days I cycle through the wine landscape: Franschhoek, Stellenbosch etc before I slowly get to the cape. I don't ride straight into Cape Town but rather follow the coast on a beautiful road all around the peninsula and down to the Cape of Good Hope before I touch down in the middle of the town. Towns here in South Africa are usually not really nice, the centers often rundown and dirty. Cape Town is the very nice exception, a real cool town where I spend some bike free days exploring town and recharging my batteries.
With renewed energy I start in a new general direction: north. But I don't want to get there as quick as possible but take plenty of time. At first I head towards Cederberg. Shortly before I pass through endless fruit plantations. But the highlight is the ride through the Cederberg mountains itself. On a great dirt road with plenty of steep passes I cycle between two mountain ranges, passing bizarre rock formations and barren valleys. I seem to be in the preheating phase for Namibia right now. The temperatures are already at the upper level of the bearable. The Cederbergs are by the way the home of the Rooibosh tea. Worldwide only here these red bushes are planted and processed into tea.
The main road to the north, the N7, I still avoid but find much nicer routes on dirt roads and over some passes. Overnight I more and more stay at fruit farms and wineries. But after Nuwerus there are no more detour option for the N7 is now the only road heading north. The landscape gets drier and emptier with every day. The last days before the border I pass a nice mountain range of barren granite rocks.
Springbok is the last bigger town before the border and I take a day off here before heading there and fill up my panniers. And then after almost 5 month I actually meet the first touring cyclist in this trip. I almost started to believe that I was the last of an extinguished species. The last 40km are definitely the easiest in all of South Africa. A nice, long descent towards the border at the Orange River.