The Northern Cape province of South Africa was a series of striking and tranquil tableaus with robust mountains and winding valleys and bright wild flowers beginning to bloom. As we moved south, homing in on Cape Town, we encountered more humbling South African generosity. It came first from yet another stranger who handed us yet another 100 Rand bill so that we could buy some lunch. A few days later a white van pulled up and a sack of 36 large oranges was unloaded into my hands through the open window, ‘for energy!’ shouted the driver. We were already carrying some ourselves so we now had 48 oranges to eat in three days. Nyomi began adding orange juice to her pasta sauce.
Further south we hit the vineyards of the Western Cape and then the Atlantic coast. We were growing impatient for the finish line. ‘Cape Town’ – two words that mean much more to us than another big city and a stop over, Cape Town is the podium, it represents a mission accomplished and a challenge surpassed. For the last sixteen months it has felt like a distant dream, a fairy tale city, and even now it felt as far away as ever. On our last day, Nelson Mandela’s birthday, we battled down the highway against the wind. During lunch a car pulled up and the driver felt the need to issue us a word of warning
‘Cape Town?… guys you know that it’s at least 50km from here? Very far on a bicycle’.
We both laughed, he didn’t get the joke. Soon afterwards another car pulled up.
‘Where are you guys staying in Cape Town? You have to come to mine. I have a city house and a beach house. I’ll give you the keys. Which one takes your fancy?’
This was a ludicrous situation. I was dirty, windswept, cold, hungry and tired and now suddenly I was standing on the roadside giving serious consideration as to whether I wanted to retire to the city house or the beach house. We opted for the city pad, our new friend Paul drew us a map and we pedaled off again with renewed vigor. Table Mountain, the ‘Guardian of the South’, faded into view, it was more imposing and grand than I had imagined. Cape Town’s drivers honked and waved their encouragement. Soon we found ourselves in the Central Business District and I caught sight of a board advertising the day’s specials outside a restaurant. ‘Egyptian Koshary’. We had to stop. This was our favourite meal in Egypt at the very start of our African journey. It must be a sign. I got chatting to the waiter; he was Malawian and hailed from our favourite hangout, Nkata Bay. We quickly discovered we knew all the same people, including his cousin. The strange coincidences were mounting up but things were about to get even more surreal. First a transvestite walked past our table glammed up in a fluffy pink cardigan, a miniskirt, plentiful lipstick and numerous sequins. He winked at us and pouted as he passed by. An elderly man then approached us with a guitar and began a serenade. Bemused, we ate our fill and cycled to Paul and Kirstin’s pretty Victorian town house, situated right at the base of Table Mountain itself.
There was one more piece of the jigsaw; no journey across Africa would be complete without reaching the Cape of Good Hope, the most South Westerly point on the continent. So the next day we were off again, stopping on our way at Paul and Kirstin’s beach house and then meeting up with Jill, Sean, Megan and Andrew, a family we’d run into days before on the coast. They took us out for tasty fish and chips and we stayed the night before making the final push to Cape Point. On the way we rode along Chapman’s Peak Drive, a road of 114 curves which hugs the near vertical face of a mountain for 10 km along the coast and it was here we came past a road cyclist who waved us down.
‘Hey are you that doctor that’s cycling around the world?’
‘I am!’ I answered, astonished
‘Hey and are you that girl that fell over?’
‘I am.’ Grumbled Nyomi, dispondent
Glenn was recently back from a tour through Namibia. He had heard about us whilst he was there but we’d never met. The end of our trip was becoming as full of bizarre twists and turns as our road to Cape Point and our entire journey through Africa. We came across road signs warning of baboons, penguins, tortoise and then golfers. En masse the last must be a real menace with their outlandish fashion sense and flagrant disregard for good taste. The last section had a couple of climbs, we powered up with legs that were born in the Ethiopian highlands. The headwind was brisk but it was a gentle breeze compared to the gales on top of Rwandan hills. The sun beat down on us but it had nothing on the formidable heat of the Sahara. Every road, every path and every track leading up to this point had made our lives easier and our bodies more resilient. Finally after 23,215 kilometres, 26 international boundaries, one year and four months on the road, 265 days in Africa and a farcical puncture count yet to be tallied, we rode into the Cape of Good Hope. The end of our journey wasn’t quite as I had envisaged. There was no champagne, there were no dancing girls, there wasn’t even a little man I had assumed would follow us around playing ‘Chariots of fire’ from a stereo. Our celebration was low key, it involved a hug, some of those iconic shots at the Cape and of course, lots of oranges.
It was only as I turned tail and began to ride back down the road we had just come from that it really struck me. We were retracing our steps because the road had ended, and so had Africa. We could go no further except in loops and repetitions. I stared out to the Western horizon and remembered how I had stared out to the Eastern horizon many months before on a boat bound for France. Already my mind flitted away to distant lands, skimming over the surface of the sea to the next adventure. The Americas.
I have reveled in the last 16 months for many, many reasons. Living outside, all the exercise and all the unfamiliar faces and places have conspired to make me feel more alive than ever. I’ve relished the unpredictability, of having no clue where I’ll be sleeping that evening, the buzz of carrying everything I need in my panniers and the freedom that I know I’ll never have again. There have been so few big decisions to make and those that come up can be mulled over and meditated on. I am no longer caught up in the tide of rapid decisions and consequences that inevitably comes with life in the city. It’s a good feeling.
Our bedrooms have been a strange and diverse mix. Most often I have collapsed into a tent set up by the road, in campsites, on farms, in villages or even on sheer cliff edges. I’ve pitched in thick snow, heavy rain, strong wind and many times under starry skies. But we have also slept in churches, schools, hospitals, police stations, traditional huts, in the shed of a water buffalo and in the research facility on a crocodile farm. I have so many warm and enduring memories from Africa. I remember the magnificent vistas, the thick forests, the empty deserts, the towering mountains and the rolling hills, but no landscape was as vivid, colourful or inspiring as the people we met along the way. It’s the extraordinary generosity of people that has helped us through and it was the people of Africa who have encouraged us more than anything else. We’ve never been refused water and hospitality has become the default in every single country we have passed. People have helped without being asked and without expecting anything in return. People, men and women like Sugnet and Pierre in Namibia who fed us terrific food and let us rest up for a whole week. People, like the Turkana tribesmen who helped me find the right track when I was lost in the desert. People, like the team of engineers who plucked us out of a fierce thunder storm during the wet season in Tanzania. People, like the Ethiopian children who pushed us up the hills. There are far too many others to mention. I have lost count of the number of drivers who have stopped their cars to hand us food or drink or just to say well done. It has been people right to the end that have helped us through and we’re grateful to Paul, Kirstin, Jill and Sean who all gave us a place to stay, rest and celebrate in Cape Town.
But the person I am most in debt to is Nyomi who I have spent about half the time since I left England riding alongside. It’s been great to have someone to share Africa with, someone to exchange those fleeting glances that say ‘are you getting this?’ At first it wasn’t easy, riding alone had probably made me a bit self-absorbed and self-obsessed with no one else to consider and I had to adjust. Yes she can be irritating, yes she can be loud, especially in the mornings, and yes she can be overwhelmingly flatulent, especially after onions, but she was always determined, constantly positive and unashamedly eccentric with a knack of making me laugh when I didn’t feel like laughing. Most of all Nyomi is a people’s person and in Africa, the most human of all continents, that made her one of the best partners in crime I could wish for on this stage of my journey. Without Nyomi it would have been a very different adventure, tougher probably, more peaceful definitely but certainly a lot, lot more boring. I will miss her, although I’m secretly glad her ukulele will be on a plane back to England and that I bottled my urge to use it as kindling for the campfire.
So have we changed? Has Africa left an indelible mark? Here’s a before and after, you can judge for yourself…
So what’s next? For the Americas my timing has to be right. Southern Argentina is a chilly place this time of year and in order to hit Alaska in the summer time (more bears, less frostbite) I have three months to kill, three months I’ll spend mostly in Cape Town, and there’s a lot to do. My bike, blog and website will all be getting a make over, Nyomi’s family are coming to visit next week followed by mine a month later, I have to cadge a lift in a boat going to South America for some time in late October, I will be doing radio and newspaper interviews and a couple of public talks about my journey, I will begin another push for equipment sponsors, there’s the rugby world cup to watch on tele and at the end of September I travel to Malawi to DJ at the Lake of Stars Festival. I also plan to do some road cycling around the Cape Peninsula with some local cyclists as well as taking off on my bike once again to explore the Garden Route, the Wild Coast and possibly to climb a holy grail for mountain bikers – the legendary Sani Pass – the route from South Africa into the landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho (details to come). This blog will also continue and over the next three months you can expect the following posts…
Statistics – every stat from the last sixteen months that you could conceivably want to know and lots that you don’t
An Equipment Top Ten – A round up and review of some of the great gear I’ve used so far
‘Musings on… Africa’ – a few impressions about life, money and politics
Stories from of any cycling I manage to fit in around South Africa and Lesotho
Having reached this milestone I thought now might be a good time to ask for some sponsorship. Click here to go to my Justgiving page, every penny donated goes to the medical aid charity Merlin. To browse the best 250 odd images from the last sixteen months copy and paste this link into your browser for a slide show (you’ll need flash player)… http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyclingthe6/sets/72157626055646576/show/
Finally I have to mention my left knee. I have kept quiet since the surgery 18,000 km ago, I didn’t want to hex it. When I came home after only five months I was heartbroken and when I returned to Istanbul I fretted over the fate of my knee for weeks, worried the injury would recur and end my ride. My knee ached a little after long days until about Uganda, but now it feels great. Another job for my growing to do list… thank you cards to my surgeon, my physio and the nursing staff on the ward at St Thomas’ Hospital.
It’s usually only the bad news in Africa that makes our newspaper headlines, the disease, the conflict, the corruption, the poverty and the crime. It is a continent portrayed in the media as being either full of victims or a selfish, dangerous place, full of criminals and malcontents. Having cycled it’s length that’s not how I see it. I can’t help feeling that some of Africa’s problems stem from its public image. When people ask me ‘what was the best bit?‘ I find it hard to answer. The best bits all involved people, but there are far too many to mention.