After Swaziland, I made a quick dash down to the coast, and started following it towards Durban. The most notable thing about this particular segment is that I didn't take a single photograph for a couple hundred miles, and that I passed by THREE parks or wildlife preserves without stopping. This is a sort of a perennial problem with me. When I first get back into cycling shape, it's nearly impossible to get me to stop.
The other problem was just one of timing. You've probably noticed that this trip isn't an exactly planned and timed adventure. I've always had a problem with awareness of time, even back when I was in the real world. Most of my life, I've been only vaguely aware of what day of the week it is, and I've become even worse on the trip. I now have trouble with which month it is. At any rate, all three of the parks came within striking distance on days when they happened to be closed because it was the weekend, or all the tours were full, or it was the tour operator's holiday. In every case where I actually went to the trouble to check to see if I could organize a tour, I would have had to wait a day. It's not as if I had a schedule to keep or anything, but the bike was calling me and I just climbed aboard and kept on keeping on.
The coastline down to Durban was a nice ride. The national highway follows the coast fairly closely. At quite a few parts, there was a local road that was even closer that I took; but most of the time I regretted it. The national road was a pretty big two lane road with a nice shoulder. The local road was always a very narrow road with no shoulder, and usually pretty busy. The drivers in SA are pretty bike friendly, say about the same as Australians; but I still don't like really busy roads. Most of the time, it's best to pick small roads over large roads, because they're less busy. I've found this to be generally true, but not always. Roads near the ocean are frequently an exception.
|Travel Tip||The easiest way to access your email while you're on the road is to set up a web based email account, and use it to access your real email. Yahoo mail is the most reliable and best working system I've found, and Hotmail is by far the worst. You can make Yahoo read your normal email account by entering the address for your normal email system in the "Other Mail" page. You then select "Check other mail", and it pulls all your pending email in from your normal email account. You can reply, but the reply will come from your Yahoo account. Before you leave, get the address, username and password for your POP3 account from your ISP. Most Internet Cafes I've seen in third world countries have people working there that can help you, but that's not usually true in Western countries. If you can, set up the Yahoo account before you leave home.|
I've developed a whole set of options for getting connected to the Internet. I do a lot of work (and goofing off) in Internet Cafes, but everything works much better if I can connect up my computer, so I try to set up an ISP in every country. Some places are easier than others. In Russia, you can buy a card in the metro that's good for 5, 10 or 20 hours of Internet access. You just type in the username and password that comes with it, and it's good until you use it up. In SA and Oz, I just called a local ISP that had nationwide access, set up an account for a few months, and then cancelled it when I left. In France, I did the same thing, but had to do it by mail if you can believe that. Lately, I've found a provider that has local access numbers in 163 countries, so I may be able to just use that one from here on out. The biggest problem though isn't getting an ISP, but getting a phone line. In most countries, only relatively expensive hotels have phones. I would ordinarily choose to stay in a pretty cheap hotel because I'm not that picky, but I frequently end up in more expensive ones just to get a phone line.
I originally planned to stay in Durban for a few days to do some work, and even lined up a hotel with a phone so I could have Internet access. I thought I'd stay a week or two, and stay longer if I found it particularly interesting. About the time I was heading for Durban, I started getting a bit cocky about the reliability of my laptop. It's a Toshiba 4300, and it's been every mile of this trip in my pannier bag, which wouldn't seem to be ideal conditions. I've had at least a dozen laptops in my life, and the one I'm writing this on is without question the most reliable one I've ever used. The problems I had in Moscow weren't the fault of the laptop, and the reformatting I had to do in Joburg was nothing compared to what I usually go through with laptops. I even started thinking about writing to Toshiba about it. If I were superstitious, I would think that such thoughts jinxed me because as soon as I landed in Durban, the backlight on my screen quit working. I took it into one repair facility, and they kept it for a week and did nothing. I then found a proper Toshiba dealer by looking in the white pages instead of the yellow pages (try it). They could fix it, but by then I'd been in Durban a week without a laptop to work with, and a week was more than enough for the town. I left it with the dealer to fix, arranged for them to ship it to Cape Town, and headed off without it.
Durban is an interesting place historically, and it has a different feel from other South African cities. During the colonial period, the White colonists had a nearly insatiable appetite for cheap labor (I'll have a lot more to say about that later). In the early days, they depended on slavery in some parts of the country, and in hiring the Blacks for low wages in others. At other times, they would import large numbers of people from other places under varying conditions. Oddly enough, there were quite a few Black slaves that came from other parts of Africa, when there were plenty of Blacks around that could have been hired for less money than it took to maintain the slaves. At one point, a few tens of thousand Chinese laborers were brought in for a few years, and then sent back home.
At one point, large numbers of Indians were brought in as "Indentured Servants", which amounts to about the same thing as being a volunteer slave. Most of the Indians settled in Durban, and eventually formed an Indian community that for a long time kept their old language, old customs, old manners of dress and even their caste system. About a million or so still live in Durban, and it's the largest concentration in SA. Walking around the town, you can definitely notice that the racial mix is different. There is a large area in the middle of town where the Indians used to live. During the Apartheid era, the authorities arbitrarily went in and destroyed the entire area and forced everyone to move into something like the Black townships.
Durban grew on me as I spent a week there. It's one of the towns that I had a very negative first impression that I subsequently changed. I've mentioned before how random the initial impressions can be. In this case, I happened to ride into town right along the beachfront. The beach is full of high-rise hotels which gives it a really soulless appearance so I immediately disliked it. Fortunately, I stayed in the middle of town and got a better look over the next week.
I found the beach to be a bit weird. They have lifeguards spaced periodically along the beach. I would walk along the beach and have nobody in the water for a few hundred meters, and then suddenly people would be stacked up like chord-wood around a lifeguard station. There might be 50-100 people in a 100 meter wide stretch of water, and nobody at all for 300 meters on either side of them.
I had one kind of annoying experience on the beach there. I was walking along and this annoying little yipper dog started barking at me. The owner was a White guy in his 60s or so. He came along and chided the dog with the words "Don't bark at him. He's the right color.". This turned out to be one of the few instances of blatant racism I ran into in SA.
In Durban, I finally started cautiously going out at night, although I never really got comfortable with being out and about in darkness until months later in Cape Town. I didn't really spend time specifically going out at night, but if I went to the cinema and it ended after dark I didn't freak out over walking back to the hotel in the dark. I find this fear a bit disconcerting. Most of the time, we tend to be afraid of things because they're unfamiliar, and I deliberately try to just disregard such things. It might seem dangerous in Moscow at night, but it really isn't so I try to not be afraid when there's no reason to be. Now in SA, the problem is that in a lot of areas it is dangerous at night, and I didn't have enough familiarity with the place to know which place was safe and which wasn't. I'm quite sure the vast majority of the areas are safe, but there's just no way to know.
In Durban, I had two crazy ideas. I thought if I indulged in the less crazy of the two it might save me from the more crazy. So far, it's worked and I might even tell you about the crazier idea if I ever get to the point where I'm double-dog sure I won't do it. Until then, I'll save it as a surprise just in case I ever let fly. In the end, I just made a few very minor and subtle alterations to my appearance. You can probably detect the changes in this photo if you look closely enough.
SA is a lot like Vietnam in some ways. There are lots of people that run small ad-hoc businesses from sidewalks. In this case, I went to a barber that happened to have a small tent set up on a sidewalk. He had a small power inverter hooked to a car battery to run the electric clippers. The barber was Black, and it was fairly obvious most of his customers were as well so the clippers are usually the tool of choice.
When I got the haircut, I looked in the mirror back at the hotel and was reminded of the old saying "The acorn doesn't fall too far from the tree". You can be the judge. This is my father when he was about my age, and myself after the haircut.
When I left Durban, I did a pretty crappy job of it. I had been skating by with nothing but a map of SA, and that didn't have all that much detail. It's about like traveling around with nothing but a map of the Western United States. When I rode into Durban, I was a bit undecided about whether I was going to ride north through Lesotho, or just carry on down the coast. I did some research in bookstores, talked to a few people and ultimately decided to give Lesotho a shot. There's a main national road going north that went exactly where I wanted to go, so I decided to get on it and go. That turned out to be a mistake. I ended up on a very busy motorway, on the wrong side of the road. By the time I got over to the right side of the road, I was still on a busy motorway where bicycles weren't allowed. The police stopped me about 3 times, but by the time all that happened, I was in a position where I couldn't get to a smaller road without a better map, and the only way to get a better map was to carry on for about 5 miles to a mall and go in and buy one. The police were all pretty cool about the whole thing. Basically, they just told me that I wasn't supposed to be on the motorway, but that was the end of their job. If I wanted to keep on, it wouldn't be the end of the world.
I eventually found the mall they described and went in and bought a map of just the local province. It turned out that there was a smaller old highway that paralleled the road I was on. I set off to find it, and after getting lost three times and getting various sets of conflicting directions; I eventually ended up on that road. Now that wasn't quite as good of a deal as I had hoped. I was on a smaller road, but it had no shoulder at all and it was just about as busy as the motorway had been. I just gritted my teeth and carried on, but it was an unpleasant day and a half before I got back to the national road I'd been on after it quit being a Motorway. This makes yet another exception to the general rule "smaller roads are better". In this particular case, I needed an even smaller road but there were none to be found.
Later on I developed a whole technique for getting out of cities that works quite well. I'll describe it in detail in the Spain page that I'd be writing right now if I weren't six months behind on my writing.
A few days outside of Durban I started climbing into the Drakensberg Mountains. SA has a lot of mountains, and this is one of the larger ranges. The only reason that Lesotho exists at all is for the same reason as Swaziland. It was a mountain fortress for a Black tribe, and they managed to remain independent up to the present.
Climbing in the mountains reminded me of how much I love mountains. It was great cycling, particularly since I was starting to get into some kind of half-assed shape. My hardest day was 110 km with a bit over 1,000 meters elevation gain. This was roughly equivalent to the ride from Nha Trang to Da Lat I did in Vietnam, except that I did it fully loaded so I was dragging 80-90 Lbs. (36-40 KG) of gear and water, and at the end of the day I felt perfectly fine instead of collapsing in a heap. I started much later in the day than I did in Vietnam, and I just ran out of daylight. If I'd started at the same time I did in Vietnam, I could have ridden another 40 km (24 Miles) without much trouble.
Now I ended up performing a good demonstration of what I'll call "Be really bad at reading a map, and extremely paranoid about camping, but have it all work out anyway". I was planning to go to a small town and stop, but I was basing this entirely on road signs saying "town in x km". It turns out that the road I was on split, and the town I was planning to go to was on the right fork and I was going left. The nearest town on the left fork was 30 km farther than I was planning to ride. I took the fork anyway, because I wasn't going 20 km the wrong way just to get a hotel. I thought I might be able to make it to the next town, if the terrain wasn't too hilly. That was wishful thinking, but I carried on anyway. I looked for campsites, and kept riding.
About the time it started getting dark, I started looking harder for a campsite. Most of this particular road had a ten foot high fence that followed the road about 30 feet off to the side. This makes camping a bit difficult. I saw some farms that I could have asked permission to camp on, but never worked up the nerve to just go in and do it. I kept trying to get just a bit farther. I came to a small pseudo-town that supports a local reservoir, and went in there and asked permission to camp but the foreman wouldn't let me. I could have just gone and done it and nobody would have been the wiser, but after I'd asked I just left. I went up to the next side road and went down it for a while, but couldn't find anywhere that looked good. That road had a few places I could camp in a pinch, but I like to be invisible from the road and there were no such places. I decided to go back to the highway and try one more time, although it was getting close to full dark then.
When I got to the highway, on a lark I just signaled I wanted to hitch a ride. In SA, hitching is extremely common, and you just use a slightly different sign than you would use in the U.S. The very first car that came by stopped, and it turned out to be a truck that could carry my bike with no problem. It turned out to be this family. I asked for a ride to the next town, but it turns out that they live on an old farmhouse that has a bunch of extra rooms (formerly for the farmhands), and they're setting up a small bed & breakfast. I just went on home with them, had dinner with the family and stayed in one of the rooms.
They were an extremely nice family, and I had a great time staying there. I got to talk half the night with them about all kinds of things. I couldn't talk to the little girl because she only speaks Afrikaans. She'll learn English in school.
One thing that I heard first here, and later from quite a few South Africans is that they're very happy to have Apartheid gone. It was such a huge relief to see it go. A lot of White South Africans left when the new constitution was put in place. Lots of them went to Australia, Britain or America. For the most part, the people that remain say "Good Riddance" to them. The people that are still here are Africans. They're proud to be Africans, they're excited about the future, they think the new constitution will work out, and they're just glad to be rid of the dead-wood. I asked the same questions here that I asked everywhere else. Nearly everyone I ever talked to was positive about the changes since the new constitution in 1994. For the most part, they know they were laboring under an unfair and unworkable system, and they're just happy to get out from under it so they can build a new South Africa. The worst of the racists seem to have all left.
The next day, I rode with the husband in this family partway to where I was going. He's a "conservation consultant". What this means is that he spent most of his career working for various park and wildlife services, and now has his own business consulting to them. SA has an impressive percentage of it's total land set aside as wildlife refuges. Both in SA and in other places like it, there's a real desire to save wild areas both as part of the heritage to be passed on to our children, and as a profitable thing. Wildlife viewing brings in a lot of SA's tourism dollars, and there's a real desire to protect it. However, to really protect wildlife areas you have to somehow structure it for long-term success. This means that various problems have to be solved, including acquisition of the land, keeping industry and others from making land-grabs, protecting the water supply, figuring out how to generate some revenue to manage it, and so on and so forth. He helps large and small wildlife preserves figure out how to manage these issues.
I'll have to say here and now that I may not have given Lesotho a really fair shot. I certainly didn't see much of it. I looked at the map and considered several routes through the country. Unfortunately, but this time I was starting to run out of time. I promised my boss I'd get to Cape Town around mid-December and get to work on the project I started last September in Petrozovodsk. I was pushing my luck already by the time I hit Lesotho, and adding another three or four days of wandering around inside the country wouldn't help. I ultimately decided to take a day to go from the first convenient entry point to the capital. From there, I would either go back into SA, or I would go south for 3 more days within Lesotho and then reenter SA at a more southerly point. That was my plan anyway. Here's what actually happened.
Lesotho was the most annoying place for beggars I've ever seen. Keep in mind that I've been in some pretty poor areas of Saigon, Bangkok and Cairo so there was some stiff competition. From the minute I crossed the border, people started asking me for money. It wasn't even the usual beggar things. People standing by the side of the road would yell "Give me money", or "Give me the money", or "Give me dollars" as if I were going to not only give them money, but stop the bike to do it. Sometimes they'd do it from fifty feet off the road as if I were going to not only stop, but also wait for them to get there. This happened at least once every half-hour for the entire day, and most of the time I never made it more than about 15 minutes. In one town, I had a long hill-climb coming out of town that took about 20 minutes to climb. During the entire climb, about a half-dozen boys followed me yelling all of the above. At the top of the hill, I was extremely proud of myself for just riding off and not jumping off and smacking one of the little buggers upside the head.
By the time I got to the capital of Maseru, I'd had enough. I spent one night in the hotel, and went back into SA the next day. That explains that little weird loop at the end of Lesotho on the map. The only person I talked to in the whole country that was interesting was a guy working for a relief agency. It turns out that there are tons of charity organizations working in the area, and he was advising one of them. Lesotho has essentially no real economy, and is entirely dependant on SA for shipping and anything else that would hook it to the outside world. An astounding percentage of the population just lives on foreign aid, and has done so for some time. He said that the "Give me money" thing was almost just a greeting for them and lots of them don't even know what it means. That may or may not be the case, but I'd had just about enough, and I left anyway.
Once I left Lesotho, I ended up in the Transvaal area. This is a fairly large semi-arid area that's compared to Australia's Outback. Part of the reason I didn't take the direct route from Joburg to Cape Town is that I would have been in the Transvaal for most of the ride, and I've already done the Outback once.
The Transvaal turned out to be a lot like riding the Outback, except it has some mountains. I wasn't doing quite the amount of climbing I'd been doing back in the Drakensbergs, but there was definitely a lot more climbing than I had anywhere in Oz.
In the small town of Burgersdorp, I had a few new broken spokes, so I got fed up and had the entire wheel re-spoked. The bike mechanic that did the work also cleaned up the bike really well, as he couldn't stand to see me ride off on it like that. I had him check my chain, and confirmed that it was worn out, but he didn't have enough new chains to replace it (it takes 3 1/2 chains). The chain wasn't actually quite worn out, but it was getting close enough that if I put off replacing it too much longer it would start wearing my chain-rings funny, and I'd end up replacing them too. He also took apart my front wheel and repacked the bearings, replaced my shifter cables and some other general maintenance. Everything worked well except for the new spokes, which started breaking within a week so I just bought a new wheel with more spokes when I got to Cape Town.
The Transvaal had a lot of sun, and I ended up with another valuable lesson in life... at least these valuable lessons in life would be valuable if I actually learned anything from them. I was getting pretty sloppy about applying sunblock and I paid for it. By the time I rolled into Cape Town I had actual blisters on my legs, and some sunburns on my face that were bad enough that I had to listen to people lecture me about proper application of sunblock for a month until my face recovered.
The second day in the Transvaal, I ended up in a non-ideal situation. It had rained on me nearly every day in SA for anywhere from 10 minutes to a half-hour, so I tended to disregard signs of rain. I rode into a small town with a nice hotel one day about noon or so. Locals had predicted rain based on the weather forecast in the newspaper, but since I find weather forecasts in newspapers about as reliable as tarot card reading, I didn't pay much attention to it. I didn't feel like stopping at noon, and the sky was clear so I kept on going. About an hour after town, it started raining with a vengeance. I still didn't consider this the end of the world. I just stopped at a rest-stop under a convenient tree and waited for about 45 minutes for it to end. I even found a spot where I could set up my tent if worse came to worse.
Eventually, the rain mostly stopped so I put on my Gortex-Clone jacket and headed off. I went about 45 minutes and came to yet another guesthouse, but the weather looked like it was holding and I wanted to make the next town which was an hour or two up the road. I went another hour or so and got a flat tire. This began to annoy me. I stopped and went to replace the tube because dark was approaching by now, but I found I didn't have a spare tube. I put a patch on the tire and headed off. After about 20 minutes, I found that the patch wasn't holding (I've found patch kits to be notoriously unreliable), and it was starting to rain again, and it was getting dark, and I was back in one of those areas with ten foot high fences on both sides of the road as far as the eye could see. I was beginning to get annoyed with the situation by then.
About the time I had a half-hour before dark, I decided to try hitching for a few minutes and set up my tent on the side of the road if not. I only had about a ten foot gap beside the road, but there was a drop-off of about five feet so I'd at least be below the road, and there were some bushes to hide me a little bit, so it wasn't quite as bad as it sounds. It was a pretty deserted area. I hitched for a few cars, and then headed off the road to set up camp.
Just as I got down and was getting ready to set up the tent, one of the cars that had gone by came back. It turned out to be this family of farmers. They gave me a ride to their farm, and let me eat dinner with them and stay in the guest room. They were an extremely nice family, and I had a great time. I spent a long time with the nine-year old girl standing in the back showing her maps and talking about where I was traveling, where her grandmother lived and the like. I was only a half-day from the edge of the detail level map I was using, so I gave it to her as a souvenir. The kids were all just bundles of energy and a lot of fun.
I fixed the tire in the morning and gave everyone rides. The older kids can ride on the luggage rack by putting their feet on the front rack to keep them away from the wheel. The really small kids can just sit on my lap and I steer with one hand and hold on with the other.
There's a fair amount of both controversy and violence surrounding farmland in SA. Whites still own and operate the vast majority of it. One of the objectives in the new constitution is to get the land distributed more fairly, but nobody's quite sure how to do that equitably. There was a major conference on this very topic going on in Durban while I was there. Some Black groups are getting impatient with the process, so there have been over 2,000 White farmers murdered since 1994. The police can't or won't solve the crimes, and so it's turning into a very tense situation. I asked these guys if they were worried about anything like that happening, but it turns out the violence is concentrated in other parts of the country so they felt safe where they are. In a similar vein, the adjacent country of Zimbabwe has been through a catastrophic change. The extremely corrupt leader Robert Mugabe has "redistributed" most farmland to his cronies, and in the process completely destroyed the farm industry, thus prompting an artificial mass famine. It's a sign of how things can be done well or poorly in Africa. Even if it is were an established fact that the Whites own the farmland unfairly, just taking it away and giving it to someone else doesn't solve the problem and in fact can make other problems much worse. In SA, they appear to be addressing it gradually which is as it should be. My only complaint is that the murderers don't appear to be being hunted with much enthusiasm.
I got a chance to have pretty long talks with both of the families that fortune threw my way and the conversations were very interesting. One thing I learned is that a quite a lot of South Africans really hated the Apartheid system but didn't have much power to change it. The most eloquent person with this point was my friend Sue in Cape Town. She said that there was no way someone that didn't live under that system could understand what a huge burden was lifted from people when it went away. The other thing I ran into a lot is that nearly all the people I talked to all seem to be very proud to be Africans, and are interested in building a solid Africa. They don't want to go anywhere else. This is their home, and they're generally glad to be here and glad to be rid of the people that left. Most of the Whites are concerned about the employment prospects for their children, but seem to think it'll all work out in the end.
If you've been following my story, you may have noticed I got very lazy about keeping my page up to date. I kind of got stuck on the South Africa narrative on the paragraph just above this one. I'm now in the process of completing it more than a year after I arrived in South Africa. Today it's exactly a year after I rolled into Cape Town. The rest of this may be a bit disjointed, but what can I say?
After I left the farmer's house, I headed south for Port Elizabeth (PE). There was nothing in particular I wanted to see in PE, but I wanted to get back to the coast and follow the Garden Route down to Cape Town. This was a ride of a few days to Cape Town. My choices were to carry on through the Transvaal, or go to the coast and ride the coast. I'd had about enough of semi-desert by now after the Transvaal and the Outback, so the coast was obviously indicated.
I spent my 43rd birthday riding over a pretty substantial set of hills, but not quite as big as some of the others I had been over. My goal was to treat myself by riding the entire 120 km (74 Miles) to PE on my birthday. To add to the thrill, when I stopped to eat lunch out of my panniers I cranked out 75 pushups. This exactly matched the most pushups I ever did 25 years ago in High School, and I've never actually repeated it since. I'd been doing pushups sporadically since Russia with the intention of getting a bit more sturdy looking and this turned out to be the high water mark.
I made it over the hill just a couple of hours after noon, and my distance calculations said it would be a very near-run thing to make it to PE before dark. In fact, I would have to be very optimistic with my speed and time calculations to think I could make it. Right at the bottom of the hill I ran into the last hotel in a tiny little town that was the last habitation before PE that I knew about. It started raining and gusting a pretty nasty wind, and with 60 km left to go I decided "New Plan! I'll treat myself to a rest day for my birthday!". It's useful to have a bit of flexibility in these matters. I stopped at the hotel and read for a while, then had dinner.
When it got late, it turned out that this hotel had a bar and they were making a lot of noise. I laid in bed and stewed for a while working myself up into a bit of a froth, but then decided to quit being a stick in the mud. I went into the bar for a beer, and it turned out it was a rare party for the locals. When I introduced myself and told them it was my birthday they held a sort of impromptu birthday party and it turned out to be a pretty nice night. I met some really nice people, had some interesting conversations and then went to bed and slept well when they closed the party down. All in all, the don't be a stick in the mud policy is generally a pretty good thing.
For the longest time, I was simply going to say: "South African Food: See Australia". The first couple of months that was my general impressions. For the most part, that's still partly true for most of the food that I had in SA, but there are some exceptions. The food in SA was in general more average than in Oz. In Australia, I had some food that was excellent, and some that was blisteringly bad. In SA, I didn't run into either extreme very often until I was in Cape Town for a while. The typical meals along the road were pretty much the same as the typical meals I found in Australia... steak, potatoes, fish, vegetables and the like. The South Africans thankfully felt no need to cook something for an hour after it was done, and I never got the feeling that vegetables had been cooking since the previous week. The food I had was generally cooked well and properly. There were a few things that were different though.
They have a tea called Roibos that's very good. It's made from a local plant that's not readily available anywhere outside Southern Africa. It makes a tea that's a bit stronger than the normal teabags and that's red. I quite liked it and drank it most of the time I was in SA. The coffee was generally nothing to get all excited about... not good and not bad.
There are several kinds of fish that I never had anywhere else. I quite liked one called Hoek that's an ocean fish from the southern oceans. There were a couple more kinds of fish I had along the way that were also quite good, but I can't remember the names of them. All in all, if you're offered fish in SA you should take the offer because I never had any disagreeable fish and I had quite a lot of it that was very nice.
Cape Town, like Sydney has quite a lot of pretty good restaurants and some that are excellent. You don't have quite the variety that there is in Sydney, but it's certainly pretty good. I had Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, local and a few others on a regular basis. The average restaurant I found in Cape Town by just wandering in wasn't too bad, but wasn't exceptional. However, once I'd been there long enough to find the good ones they turned out to be very good.
The produce in SA was pretty good overall. One grocery store in Cape Town had the best selection of produce I've seen anywhere on this trip (with correspondingly high prices). The rest of the time the produce didn't have the quality or variety of Vietnam or Thailand, but it was pretty good.
The Garden Route is one of SA's premier tourist attractions. It's a very beautiful stretch of land between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. My guidebook gave mixed reviews of the area. They devoted quite a bit of time to it, and also wrote a little note saying that about half the people that write in complain that they didn't devote enough pages to it, and the other half wrote in to say they wasted too many pages on it. I guess it depends on one's personality. For my part I rode it over the course of about a week and found it to be pretty but not spectacular. It was good cycling, but not the best I had in SA.
By the time I hit the garden route, I was running pretty late. It had been just short of a year since I left on this six-month sabbatical. I still had a job with some expectations that I would actually accomplish something. I had promised my boss that I'd be in Cape Town in early December and would settle down and finish the project I was working on. It was now early December and I wasn't there yet so I started just cranking out the miles with a bit less time to stop and wander around than I ordinarily would have. The towns along the garden route weren't all that interesting, but I would have liked to spend a few days in them anyway.
The start of the Garden Route for me was Port Elizabeth. Ordinarily, I would have gone into PE for a couple of days or so just to look around. When I got about ten miles from it I found that the nice friendly national road I'd been following was turning into something like a freeway. A good rule of thumb for cycling is "Small road good - Freeway bad". My trusty map showed a small road that bypassed PE altogether, went through a township and intersected the national road about ten miles to the west of PE. I decided to take that road, particularly since PE didn't look like it was going to be all that much different from Durban anyway. I ended up in a medium-sized township and stopped there for lunch. I can tell you that they don't get all that many recumbent cyclists in the township. A couple of amusing incidents happened there.
The first was that I was going along following the signs and happened to miss one. I was going along fat, dumb and happy in the wrong direction when a taxi came up behind me, passed me and stopped in the middle of the road. The driver got out and flagged me down. This happens fairly often and I either stop or continue along according to my mood. Fortunately, this time I was in a stopping mood and the driver told me that I was going the wrong way. I showed him where I was going on my map and he told me I'd missed a turn a few km back. I chatted with him for a while about the bike and then commenced back the way he indicated and sure enough, he was right.
I stopped in the township at a fried chicken place for lunch. Everyone there spoke either Afrikaans or a tribal language so we couldn't really communicate. I managed to indicate that I wanted some chicken so they ponied it up. I asked if they had any chips, or potato chips or bread to go with it. They finally nodded vigorously about the bread, and then proceeded to give me half a loaf of White bread. I couldn't manage to convince them that a few slices would be adequate, so I took it outside and ate it on the step sitting beside my bike. Quite a few people came by to take a look at the new phenomena. You can bet I was the only White face in a pretty large circle, but I never felt threatened in any way. The township was obviously desperately poor, but not a blisteringly terrible place. It was a pretty big notch above the worst of Soweto. The usual bunch of beggar kids came along and started plying their trade. I ignored them as usual, but when I left I gave them the leftover bread. That was actually a pretty big hit. I don't like to encourage begging, but this action didn't seem to be too bad to me. I didn't really mind the place, but was somewhat happy to ride out of it.
It's impossible to visit SA without thinking about the issue of race relations. It's such a big part of their history, and the effects are so blatant as to just smack you in the face. I don't claim to have made a scientific survey, but I did talk to quite a few people of all colors, and asked my set of questions quite a few times. I think I can make some tentative conclusions:
All in all, race relations appear to be much better than I expected. I expected to see a level of tension that you could just cut with a knife, but if there was a lot of tension it wasn't obvious with me.
Now that I've said all that though, let me qualify it. The races seem to be very segregated. Most Whites socialize with Whites, and most Blacks socialize with Blacks. It happens naturally, or out of habit, or because of economic differences, or for any number of other reasons. This means that I ended up talking to a lot more Whites than Blacks. That's not because I'm more comfortable with them, but because you have to go out of your way to bump into people of other races. Most of the time, the places and times that I stopped to talk to someone there were no Blacks around.
The other qualification I should mention is that people that do have racist tendencies wouldn't be likely to talk to me. This probably means that I got a more positive view or race relations than the real level is, but I don't really know by how much.
There are some serious race problems. Blacks are murdering White farmers in pretty large numbers, and there are other signs of restiveness. All in all, I think things are progressing well but they have a ways to go before they truly become the Rainbow Nation. They sure seem to be on the right track to me though.
Next - Cape Town