The South African Safari

Road Rider Goes Along On Beach's Inaugural Adventure Tour In South Africa

Road Rider, Sept. 1985
by David L. Hough

THE INTERROGATION

The black police captain's dingy yellow office in Maseru was straight out of an African adventure movie. The plaster was chipped and stained, the creaky wood floor slanted away towards one wall, and a single obnoxious light bulb hung over the ancient desk. The two dirty little windows were secured with thick round iron bars. The beady-eyed fellow who had brought me in for questioning dragged the straight-backed wooden chair away from the Captain's desk to the geographical center of the remaining space, and the Captain motioned for me to sit. Two other officers remained in the background. None of the police wore uniforms, and I had to guess who was who in the room.

"Is this your camera?"

"Yes, it is mine."

"Why were you taking photographs in Maseru?"

"I like to take pictures when I travel to show my friends at home what life is like in the countries where I have been."

"What sort of pictures did you take?"

"I like to shoot pictures of boys herding cattle, and old men wearing blankets, and scenery along the road."

"Did you take any photographs of this police station?"

"No."

"Could you remove the film from your camera and show us the photographs you have taken?"

"I would be pleased to take out the film, but the pictures will disappear when exposed to light."

"Then you do not have to remove the film. But please list all the photographs you have taken on this piece of paper, and put down your name and address, please."

The interrogation was straight out of an adventure movie all right, except that this was real life. These were real policemen, and this was a real police station in the little city of Maseru in Lesotho. (I keep reminding myself to say "Lay-sue-too.") A short time before, a black policeman in a rumpled suitcoat believed that I had taken his picture, and had respectfully asked me if I would please accompany him to the police station. I got the impression that if I didn't come along he would call over the guys with the Russian Kalishnikovs. Well, I'd gone to Africa looking for adventure, and I had found it all right. To be honest, I hadn't been very discreet about my picture-taking. I had been standing on a streetcorner wearing brown riding leathers with a bright blue stripe, wearing this big silver camera bag on my chest. No cuff-link spy cameras for me!

BEACH'S SOUTH AFRICAN SAFARI

I suppose you're wondering what I was doing riding around Africa on a motorcycle, snapping photos. Let me explain. I had been invited to participate in an adventure dreamed up by veteran tour-master Bob Beach, who is the same guy who has been doing motorcycle tours in Europe for years. The idea was to fly to South Africa, pick up some rental BMW motorcycles, and buzz off across the landscape with a group of American riders. We'd be staying in fancy hotels, visiting wild game parks, and sipping Grand Mousseux Vin Doux. Actually, there would be two tour groups. The first group would ride the bikes from Johannesburg to Cape Town and then fly home. The second group would fly to Cape Town and ride the same bikes back to Johannesburg. "Bwana" Bob would accompany the first group; his son Rob would go with the second group. I was invited to join the second group, which would have me leaving New York on April 8, and get me back home on April 29.

Look, the Bwana is no dummy. He knows that South Africa is a complex little world. When it's spring here, it's fall there. In South Africa they drive on the left side of the road like in England, and they measure things in liters and kilometers, and talk strange. So he made arrangements with two adventuresome South African motorcycle tour organizers to plan the routes, reserve hotels, provide the motorcycles, and carry our baggage in a van. Our guides — Rolf-Dieter ("call me Deeter") Schmidt, and D. J. ("call me DeeJay") Voyce — do business as "Bike Adventours" when they're not trying to make a living.

THE LAYOUT

Before we get down to some nittygritty details of how it all went, let's run over a few basics on South Africa to give you some idea of the layout. Africa is a big place, about the size of western America from the Rockies to the Pacific ocean. It's about the same latitude south of the equator as Texas is north of the equator, but the weather varies greatly, depending on altitude. There is a huge desert in the northwest, the Kalahari, which dips into the Atlantic ocean as the Skeleton Coast. The southern coast along the Indian ocean is warm and green, with lush trees and sandy beaches. The high mountains are the Drakensbergs which run north/south along the eastern edge of the country. The African Savannah, that lowveld bush country where the remaining wild animals are found, is in the northwest, beyond the mountains.

The southern tip of Africa includes several nations: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho, and the Republic of South Africa, plus a smattering of "homelands" that you can think of as Indian reservations for black tribes. The population of South Africa is roughly 90 percent black, with the majority living in and around four big population centers: Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and Cape Town. Johannesburg is the largest city, sitting on a high plateau over a tremendous mineral wealth. You know gold, diamonds, uranium, that sort of thing.

Twenty or so tribes of black natives are spread loosely across the northern bushlands, down along the eastern coast and mountains, and south along the Indian ocean. Lesotho is an independent black nation which lies in southeastern South Africa. The people of Lesotho, the Basotho, were cannibals as late as the 1800s. Swaziland is a friendlier black nation along the northeast borders of South Africa. Great numbers of blacks in Southern Africa are just beginning to emerge from another age, still observing ancient customs and religions. Now, if all this is starting to sound a bit complicated, welcome to South Africa. It's a complex place.

THE SAFARI

I’m not going to give you a kilometer-by-kilometer description of everything we did during the safari. We chased the horizon down freeways, buzzed along curvey secondary highways, zoomed around mountain switchbacks, and bounced down dusty dirt roads. We went out in the middle of the night to look for lions, and rode ostriches, and drank Amstel beer. We rode in glass elevators and slept in cabins with grass roofs, and visited a hundred strange places with names we'd never heard before: Arniston, Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn, Tsitsikamma, Hogsback, Blydepoort, Londolozi. We learned some history, and made some memories ... and here is part of it...

LONDOLOZI

From the spectacular escarpments of the Drakensberg mountains in the East, the landscape gradually drops away to a low bushland, or "lowveld." The lowveld runs for thousands of kilometers along the eastern edge of the continent, down through Zimbabwe, down through the Eastern Transvaal of South Africa, and down along the edge of Swaziland. The lowveld, the bushy African savanna, is what comes to mind when most Americans think "Africa." This is where the grass is tall to hide the lions, and where scrubby trees provide forage for elephants and giraffes. This is where the graceful steenbok and kudu and eland and zebra roam, and where leopards and lions hunt at night. Kruger National Park occupies the South African portion of the lowveld, and a number of private game reserves have been established next to the park to give the animals some more room. One of the more interesting game reserves is called Londolozi.

Listen, we're heading out into the bush with the wild animals. Not just birds with colorful wings, or dung beetles. We're talking big cats that could whisk you off your bike in one swipe. Not wishing to contribute to the Londolozi "meals on wheels" program, we park at the gate and pitch our gear into a Land Rover for the trip in to the base camp. We've ridden in about 15 kilometers of sandy whoop-de-doos to get to the gate, and it's another 19 or 20 bumpy kilometers down a sandy track to the base. The Londolozi base camp is a neat circle of white cottages with thatched roofs, an open air dining room, a veranda overlooking the savanna, and a few outbuildings for the staff.

The idea is to go out into the bush in an open Land Rover with a Ranger and a Tracker. With luck, they'll find us some wild game to shoot, with our cameras, of course. Some species are close to extinction. The Rovers are reinforced with steel pipe around the front to withstand the rigors of bashing down small trees and thumping into rocks hidden in the grass. It's fair game to bounce the Rover off the road and snort out through the bush to follow animals. With the beating these machines take, fragile accountrements such as windshields and doors have been removed. So, when the Ranger yells, "DUCK!," I duck. Slow duckers lose their hats to the thorn trees whizzing by. During the day we find and film, elephants and rhinos and giraffes.

To find the big cats, we go out at dusk. With a stroke of luck, we spot a graceful pair of cheetah. They can run across open bushland at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, and they soon trot off and disappear.

An hour or so later, with the stars of the southern hemisphere twinkling overhead, our ranger locates a pride of lions that have made a kill. The lions stick around to eat, and we cautiously move up to within 30 feet of a wild lion munching on a fresh bone. I'm here to tell you that sitting eyeball-to-eyeball with a wild lion at night is an unforgettable experience. By about 10:00 p.m. we putter back to base camp for dinner, which is set around an open fire in a reed-walled compound under the stars. Over Amstel beers and Bellingham Johannesburger white wine, we eat and celebrate the evening's "hunt," and then toddle off to bed with the sound of a million cicada beetles chirping the night away. The pathways to the cabins are lit by kerosene lanterns, and interior lighting is by gas lamp. Londolozi has not wasted its charm on me.

THE BEACON ISLAND SUN

We didn't sleep in cabins in the bush most of the time. Our usual accommodations were in magnificent Southern Sun hotels, including the Sandton Sun in Johannesburg, and the Cape Sun in Cape Town.

The Beacon Island Sun is a nice example of how we survived in the wild . It sits out on a rock in the Indian ocean. The lobby is about 10 stories tall, with seagull mobiles suspended from the ceiling. Rooms open on to a circular balcony at each level, and have windows that open to let in the view and the sea air. The hotel contains a formal dining room overlooking the surf, two pubs, a gift shop, a hairdresser, a dance floor, a veranda for outdoor parties, an outdoor swimming pool, an indoor pool, an exercise room, and a sauna. Miles of sandy beach extend in each direction. Upon arrival, we are given the customary glass of orange juice and sparkling wine to take the dust out of our throats, and porters take our bags to the room.

Each room has a big window for viewing the dolphins swimming by, and a refrigerated liquor cabinet should you get thirsty during the night. There are lots of towels in the bathroom, plus shampoo and bath oil.

If you get hungry before dinner, there's 24-hour room service. How about an Avocado Neptune? That's a fresh avocado stuffed with fresh Natal shrimp and crabmeat, topped with a dill cocktail sauce, for 6 Rand. A slice of hot apple-and-walnut pie will cost you R3,25. As inviting as the snacks are, my advice is to forget 'em. The regular meals are more than adequate.

A SIMPLE BREAKFAST

Typical South African hotel breakfasts go something like this: I'm escorted to a table set with linen and silver. The waiter brings a basket of fresh pastry and bread, fills my coffee cup, and asks what I'd like to eat. I'd just like a little cold cereal and milk today, so I opt for the "help-yourself' buffet. I mix myself some bran flakes and granola, toss in a peach and a pear, add some fresh milk, and pour myself a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice to top it off.

"Would you like to order something, sir?"

"Un ... no thanks. Well, maybe I'll have a poached egg to top off my cereal."

"Would you like cheese on your egg, sir?"

"Ah ... okay, add some cheddar and maybe a fried tomato."

"Very good, sir. Would you like a sausage, too?"

Okay. I'll take one beef and one pork, and why don't you make that poached egg an omelette while you're at it."

"Thank you, sir. Would you care for some mushrooms? Perhaps a small steak or some roast duckling."

"Yes, I'll take some mushrooms with the omelette, and just a slice of roast duckling, but hold the steak. I'm trying to lose a little weight."

As I wade through my simple little breakfast, I consider that dinner tonight is likely to be a much more serious meal, and maybe I should just skip lunch altogether. I doodle on a scrap of paper, adding up the cost of all this sumptuosness. I figure maybe 100 Rand a day per person. At today's exchange rate, one U.S. dollar buys about two Rand. It doesn't take much smarts to figure out that hotels in South Africa are a bargain.

CAPE TOWN!

Just the name sends a shiver up my spine. Cape Town, the "mother" city of South Africa, lies nestled at the feet of three spectacular mountains: Table Mountain, Devil's Peak, and Lion's Head. It's a busy port on the Atlantic ocean, a center of commerce and culture, a good base for exploring the Cape Penninsula. Many believe it is the most beautiful city in the world. Which is why we flew to Cape Town and checked into the Cape Sun smack dab in the center of town. Step into the elevator, and find yourself in a glass bubble on the outside of the building, with a view of Table Mountain as you ascend to your room. Up on top of Table Mountain, the Cape Doctor is laying the tablecloth.

The "Cape Doctor" is the surging wind that blows in from the sea summer through fall, blowing away pollen, insects, and pollution. The air over the city is always clean and pure. Sometimes, high-pressure jetstreams blow down across the tip of Africa, pick up ocean moisture, and blow back over Table Mountain from the south. The suddenly rising moist air condenses in a thin cloud like a tablecloth draping over a mountain. Cablecars are available to take visitors to the top, for a spectacular view of the city.

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

From Cape Town, we make a giant circle out into wine country and back towards the Cape of Good Hope. With the howling wind blowing in from the sea, we beat down the coast, our bikes heeled over to port with sand and salt spray peppering our faceplates. The Cape of Good Hope juts out into the sea like a scimitar trying to slice a line between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and we ride down to the very tip where the blue-green waves are crashing into the rocks in a spray of foam. Standing with my face to the sea, I imagine for a moment that I see a sailing ship out there, beating to windward. But when I blink my eyes in the wind, the image is gone. Legend has it that a Dutch captain went down with all hands trying to sail around the Cape in a storm, and before he sank he swore he'd round the Cape if it took until doomsday. Was that the Flying Dutchman out there today, or merely a wave breaking? Scoff, if you will, but take note that German U-boat logs show sightings of mysterious sailing ships trying to round the Cape during storms.

THE MOUNTAINS

The rugged Drakensberg range runs north-south between the central plateau and the lowveld bushlands. The mountains bunch up at what is now Lesotho, and these high peaks are called the roof of Africa. Some day, you ought to go see them. In the meanwhile, let me tell you about an excursion into another range along the south coast.

The little Karoo stretches for some 250 Kilometers between the Outiniqua mountains along the Indian ocean and the Swartberg mountains to the north. The Little Karoo is a high plateau abounding in strange vegetation, wild flowers, baboons, leopards, and ostriches. Most of the tourists stay in Oudtshoorn and go to see the ostrich herds, but Rob Beach and I went exploring up in the Swartberg instead. We went to The Hell and back on our BMWs.

The Swartberg Pass gains about 1,500 meters above the valley floor as it zig-zags up the mountain on a gravel road. Deep in the Swartbergs, the red rocks bulge into two giant arms, and between the arms lies a deep gorge filled with scrubby trees and aloes. During the winter months the orange and red blossoms turn the gorge to flame, an inferno of color, which is why they call it "The Hell." For over a hundred years, a small colony of ranchers lived at the head of the gorge in isolation from the outside world. In 1962, a tortuous single-track road was carved in from Swartberg Pass. Rob has a plan to explore this snaky dirt path to the community known as Gamkaskloof. We've got the right machines to do it. "After all," explained Rob, "It's only 56 kilometers from the turnoff."

"Round trip?" I queried.

"No, one way."

As it turned out, there wasn't much to see at Gamkaskloof. Just a couple of ranches and a hermit named Chris. Chris prefers isolation, and only rides out every fortnight or so on his Honda dirt bike to fetch supplies. Chris made us some coffee and offered us a biscuit from a glass jar. It was a nice gesture; after all, he'd hauled those cookies in 65 or 70 kilometers from civilization. The biscuits looked edible enough, but the rancid taste was positively awesome! I managed to nibble mine down, not wanting to insult our host. Rob managed to saunter outside for a view, and buried his biscuit in the dirt with the toe of his boot.

While Gamkaskloof wasn't much to look at, the canyons and the tortuous road and the awesome biscuits made quite an impression on us. Just to top off the ride, we continued on over the Swartberg through a breathtaking red rock canyon, and looped another hundred kilometers or so back to Oudtshoorn, just in time to make it out to the Ostrich ranch for dinner. For the record, ostrich meat tastes somewhat like a cross between turkey and venison.

SMALL-TOWN TIME WARP

Our travels down the secondary highways of South Africa took us through many backwater towns whose character reminded me very much of farm towns in the western U.S. back in the 1940s. The attitude is easy and relaxed, and you can ride through or stop for a conversation without feeling that you're getting in the way. We stopped at such a little town one day for lunch. The hotel sidewalk and veranda are covered by an iron roof to provide a welcome shade. The lobby has several attached easy chairs, and a resident dog is lying on the faded carpet. The clerk wears a green eyeshade, and is reading the local newspaper. A big fan paddles the air overhead. There is a smoking lounge with leather chairs, and beyond that a dining room with oak tables set with china and silver. Two forks, three knives, and two spoons per setting, all with ivory handles. I mean, real silver, with real ivory. Just like going to grandmother's house. Except, of course, that all too soon we have to fire up our G/S's and hit the road towards the next 20th century oasis/hotel.

SERENDIPITY

I really enjoyed South Africa. I like Swaziland. I even think kindly of Lesotho, in spite of the business at the police station. There's a lot of serendipity in southern Africa. Serendipity is the business of finding valuable or agreeable discoveries that you weren't looking for. We went looking for elephants and tigers and scenic vistas of the Drakensberg. We found those, of course, but we also stumbled on hermits like Chris, and the little hotels in the sleepy towns, and the cicada beetles chirping the night away. There will certainly be other motorcycle tours to South Africa in future years. I'm sure they will get better organized, and more sophisticated and predictable. Someone will figure out a more relaxed itinerary that doesn't have everyone dashing down unknown roads trying to get into the next country before the frontier closes for the day. And, they'll be good tours.

But, I'll let you in on a little secret. Future motorcycle tourists will miss something we Safari Pioneers experienced: the wild rush across the African landscape with our senses working at redline to soak up everything in sight. When we managed to dash over the Swaziland border seconds before the gate slammed shut, we grinned and laughed, and pulled over just around the corner to celebrate. We climbed up on a big red rock, and shared a lonely bottle of warm Amstel around, and shouted YAHOOO! We had shared another adventure we had found by accident, and it was agreeable. It was serendipity.

AND THEN IT WAS OVER

We had ridden our way across the horizons of Africa for three weeks, day after day, and that's a lot of riding and sniffing and staring and listening. Even so, we barely scratched the surface of what's there. Some day I'll tell you about riding ostriches, and describe dung beetles, and draw you some diagrams of Hogsback, and explain about the infamous Land Whale.

We could talk about diamond mines and gold mines and asbestos mines, and reminisce about Addo elephants and oranges. For the moment, my memory banks are overloaded with visions of South Africa. No wonder that travelers have been so intrigued with the continent for years, and no wonder that Bob Beach decided to tour there. If you happen upon me some day sitting by the side of the road staring off into space with a silly grin on my face, don't disturb me; I'll probably be calling up some of those African images from my memory banks and reliving the South African Safari.

Back in "Jo-burg" again, we made a final ride to the shop, and that's really when the trip ended. I pulled off my tank bag, and unstrapped my bundle of gear from the rear rack, and turned off the fuel tap. And then I slugged old HHF 35 IT across the saddle as a way of saying "Goodbye." Maybe I was even a little misty-eyed.

From Johannesburg, it is a long, long way back to Seattle.

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