A Back Roads Trip Across South Africa

A little before Christmas 2017 I spontaneously decided to do a road trip from Cape Town where I lived, to visit my parents in Pietermaritzburg about 1600km away. I normally fly up but being the holidays and eager to get out for a long trip, I thought it may be a good idea.

The plan was to avoid freeways as much as possible and stick to the gravel farm roads, of which there are many. To make things more interesting I also decided not to book accommodation in advance. I would drive as much as I wanted, then look out for a place to stay. South Africa is not a safe country, but I figured I would be far enough away from major towns that safety hopefully wouldn’t be a problem.

I aimed to cover the distance over 4 days. On the first, after a peaceful ride through the farmlands, I found a camp site offering decent facilities around sunset. I was allocated a spot in the shade and pitched a tent for the night. It was a decent start to the trip and while nothing spectacular, I thoroughly enjoyed being on the road, alone, and for the most part in the middle of nowhere.

Without realizing it at the time, I was learning to enjoy solo travel. And this, along with a few experiences after and a few before, prepared me for my current two-years-and-counting South America trip.

Day 2 started much like the first. I was quietly riding through some back roads, again without another person in sight, when I spotted an adult kudu – a type of antelope found locally – eating by the side of the road. Not wanting a problem, I slowed down and kept driving while giving the animal a wide berth. All seemed well though. I hadn’t scared it. Those little precautions help keep travelers much safer.

Then, as I got dangerously close, the animal darted across the road in front of me. I slammed on the brakes with enough room to spare. But just as relief set in, a baby kudu I hadn’t noticed at all blindly ran after its mother and slammed into the passenger side of my vehicle with enough force that I almost lost control.

I stopped perhaps 50 metres away and inspected the damage. There was a huge dent on the door and some blood stains. I walked back to the site of the accident and saw the baby lying by the side of the road, still alive, and trying to crawl under a barbed wire fence with a broken leg. Kudus normally hop those fences with ease.

Kudus, even baby kudus, are huge. Even if I miraculously was able to lift it and take it to the next town, it wouldn’t let me. It was a wild animal. I got some water and tried to feed it but it refused to drink. I jumped back into my vehicle and thought I would seek assistance at the nearest farmhouse. Before arriving though, I came across a farmer and explained the situation. He drove back to the scene of the accident with me but after inspecting the damage he said there was nothing we could do. Apparently wild kudus run across roads and into vehicles pretty frequently in those parts. No matter how high the fence, they always manage to get through. While it was a new experience for me, the farmer had apparently been through this many times before. He said to keep going and that he would fetch his gun after running some errands, then put the baby out of its misery. I noticed the mother watching us from a field next to the road. But I took the farmer’s advice and left.

That evening I found accommodation at a little one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. I paid the proprietor, Mike, and offloaded, then went back to reassess the damage to my car door. Mike sidled up to me and in the tone of voice not far removed from a drug dealer asking if I was interested in his product he asked: “You a Muslim?”

I am. And Mike, a big, plump, Caucasian who shared more than a passing resemblance to a boer (farmer) but with blue shorts – farmers in South Africa favour khaki – was a Muslim too. He looked nothing at all like I would have expected. Shame on me for presuming I guess. He took me to his living room where a huge crucifix and a picture of the Virgin Mary adorned the far wall and for a moment I wondered if he had his religions mixed up. Shame on me twice.

Mike told me about accepting Islam pretty late in life. The rest of his family were Christian, but they all got along well enough by following a policy of agreeing to disagree. He also told me about his favourite past time of annoying the other religious folk in town who were not thrilled that a good church going man in his sixties turned to the dark side.

The following morning, Mike appeared as I was packing to leave and said he wanted to show me something. He runs a little motorcycle museum specializing in old Hondas. He is also a Freemason, and devoted a section of the museum to his collection to prove it. Finding an interesting, rebellious, White, Muslim-Freemason-Biker-Curator in the middle of farmland and Bible country was, without a doubt, a highlight.

What I thought would be a short visit ended up lasting almost three hours, and I was given a personal tour of everything. I was meant to be on the road by 10am. I left closer to 1pm with around 6 hours of light remaining. Still, it was a good delay.

The eastern half of the Eastern Cape, where it meets Kwazulu Natal, offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. In my effort to avoid freeways I chose to head through the mountains and find accommodation before nightfall. The mountain scenery did not disappoint even though earlier rain had turned the roads muddy and progress was slower than expected. At sunset I found myself at Naude’s Nek, one of the highest mountain passes in the country. Several years earlier my friends and I camped here unexpectedly on a motorcycle adventure ride gone wrong. And once again I spent the night at Naude’s Nek though, unlike the motorcycle adventure, I was well prepared this time.

The night was terribly windy. The temperature dropped to almost freezing. But it was just me, in the middle of nowhere, with not another soul in sight. I loved it. The view in the morning was one to die for. Rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, with mountains at my back. Spectacular does not do it justice.

I drove down, enjoying the view and the road thoroughly. Perhaps my only regret, and one I shared on a similar trip to Chile earlier in the year, was that I did not do it by motorbike.

After around 90 minutes of stunning mountain scenery I joined the main road. I had less than 150km to my destination. It had been an incredible 3 days thus far. I used the freeway for the remainder of the trip.