My African Journey Begins, and I’m Feeling Rather Sick
I’ve just been to the nearest travellers’ medical centre and started a round of vaccinations in preparation for a road trip across southern Africa. The vaccination program covers Rabies, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A/B, Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus. Both my upper arms are covered in those little round dots where the needles went in, a human pin cushion.
Post vaccination reaction maybe. Or delayed fear; I’ve never been good with needles. After all, the diseases themselves are far more threatening than the prevention. I’ll get over it as I’m about to realise a childhood dream.
The African Genesis
As a young kid sitting in a classroom in the 1960’s clearly recalling a geography lesson about The Dark Continent – Africa. The teacher painted a picture of a huge country of mystery and intrigue. My imagination running at full pace, filled with images of raw savagery and wild animals. I decide to go there one day.
I revisit that decision years later as an adult with a few more worldly resources. The time has come to travel across southern Africa; not in my mind’s eye but on a BMW 1200 GS motorcycle.
The itinerary will cover South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. Around 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) will be ridden over the coming weeks.
Pack up my gear, and board a plane to Johannesburg. After touching down at O. Tambo International Airport, I am picked up by Darryl Berman (South Africa Motorcycle Adventures), who I’ve hired the motorcycle through.
First Night in an African Land
It’s an overnight stay at Marloot, a delightful guesthouse in Pretoria. The accommodation is set in landscaped gardens, with large rooms, dining area, bar, pool and hilltop views. The owners, Loot and Elma, make some space available to store my excess gear, as I’ll be using Marloot as my base for the different stages of the road trip.
After packing the motorcycle panniers and top box with gear, it’s dinner and off to get some sleep for tomorrow’s departure.
Before I nod off, I realise I’m here. I’m in Africa, and about to realise that childhood dream.
North East to Hazyview
I leave Marloot early the next day. After a couple of hours riding, time to get off the bike, stretch my legs and take a break at Bronkhorstspruit. I’m reminded again that Africa is a land of contrasts and surprises in every sense of the term.
Appearing before me is the Nan Hua Temple, which is the largest Buddhist Temple in Africa. To say it’s enormous is to commit murder by understatement.
Back on the motorcycle and on to the next stop at Sabie. It’s not long before the climb begins up to Long Tom Pass. The temperature starts to drop as the climb continues up to 2,150 metres (7,050 feet). Here the weather changes in a heartbeat. Literally in a couple of minutes the sun is gone and mist is sweeping up from the valley below.
On the final run into Hazyview, there is a serious accident involving a truck full of workers, and the road is going to be closed for hours. A terrible situation, and the police on duty tell me to return to Sabie, then go via Graskop into Hazyview via R535.
The sun is sinking fast, and I know I’ll be riding through the African night. This is something to be undertaken with great caution, as animals such as elephant are difficult to see on the road after dark. Covered in dust and slow moving, they blend into the night. I’m told in the ongoing contest between large, wild animals and motorcyclists on African roads; motorcyclists are yet to chalk up a win.
Fortunately, the Beemer has excellent lights, and I flick the switch to high beam to illuminate what seems half the continent. All has gone well as I pull into my accommodation for the night.
Into the Kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland)
Eswatini, formally Swaziland, is an absolute diarchy, ruled by the King with his mother. Scenery ranges from mountainous to low plains. It’s a good place to go for a ride.
Coming in from Hazyview, the nearest border crossing is Jeppe’s Reef. I park the motorcycle in the border crossing carpark, and go across to the window. Pass my documents through and I’m told there is a Road Tax of 50 Rand.
Making the comment “I’ll give you some money”, I get a stony look from the official behind the bars. I rephrase it to “How can I pay the road tax that is due”, I get a much more civil look and she tells me cash is fine. Maybe she thought I was trying to bribe her. Anyhow, all is well and I’m on my way to the capital Mbabane, for an overnight stay.
By late afternoon, I’m set up in the Red Berry B&B run by Derek and Janis, two expat South African proprietors. Nice views over the capital. A meal, some wine and that’s the day.
The next day I’m back in South Africa via the border crossing at Siracusa.
African border crossings can be long and arduous, with many hours going by before getting that final stamp on the passport. Getting into, and out of, Eswatini is quick and pretty straightforward.
Ncome River – The Scene of an Epic Confrontation
The ride into the Ncome River is unsealed road for the last 20 kilometres. The road is well maintained, and doesn’t present any problems.
It is the scene of the Battle of Blood River, where an estimated 15,000 Zulus attacked the Voortrekkers on their journey east in 1838. The Zulus suffered huge losses, while the Voortrekkers incurred a few injuries.
The Ncome River Museum, which is located on the battle area, has a full-size replica of the 64 oxen-drawn wagons (known as a laager) used by the Voortrekkers.
I have arrived late afternoon, and take a walk around. Quite frankly, I find it eerie; with the cold wind blowing the long grass like waves lapping an icy shore. A shiver runs down my spine. Maybe the tortured souls of those who were lost in that bloody battle are still present.
I’m back on the motorcycle pretty smartly, and heading for Rorke’s Drift.
Rorke’s Drift – And It Goes Pear-Shaped
Riding along and its near sundown. A glance at the trip meter, a quick mental calculation and I realise I’ve got close to 70 kilometres to get to Rorke’s Drift Lodge; where I’ll be staying for the night.
It’s dark when I get to the last unsealed section of road. About 2 kilometres to the lodge. Not a problem, I think to myself. Famous last thoughts.
About 100 metres in I suddenly find myself in a deep sand drift. I’m a bit tired, it’s dark, I’m not prepared for it, and the next thing I know I’m high-sided. The bike is over and I’m flat on my back taking in the view of the star-studded sky.
After a few choice profanities; a quick personal check. Nothing appears to be broken, twisted or sprained. Check out the bike, and the left pannier bracket is broken at one spot. This has caused the left pannier to come adrift. Could be worse.
What was that piece of advice again? Don’t ride on African roads after dark!
Next job is to get the bike back upright. The way the bike has fallen makes it difficult for me to lift it. After several attempts, no luck. Damn!
But luck is on my side. A couple of young men who work at the lodge are heading home and stop to help me. In a minute or two the bike is upright, with the side stand down. Hit the start button, and it purrs into life.
The damage is not excessive, so I am able to ride slowly up to the lodge. I’m greeted by Werner, with his wife Rika, who looks after the lodge. He suggests to park the bike and he’ll take a look in the morning. Too late to do anything now.
Werner gets to work the next day with the ‘must-haves’ on any motorcycle road trip. Duct tape and cable ties. It’s not pretty, but it looks solid enough to get me back on the road.
Clarens and Lesotho
It’s coming towards the end of this part of the motorcycle road trip. My last stop before heading back to Pretoria is Clarens.
I fall in love with Clarens; with its crisp mountain air, art galleries, craft breweries, live music, quaint B&B’s, outdoor dining and general laid-back feel. Set against a backdrop of the Maluti Mountains, it’s the perfect place to spend a couple of days. It deserves the tag as the “Jewel of The Eastern Free State”.
My accommodation for my time here is Patcham Place, one of the beautiful B&B’s in the town.
I decide to ride into Lesotho for the day. Like Eswatini (Swaziland), it is an independent kingdom, typified by high, mountainous countryside. I cross the border at Butha Buthe, again with minimal fuss and a 20 Rand entry tax.
One of the great motorcycle rides in southern Africa is the Sani Pass, with its nine kilometres of switchback road and spectacular mountain scenery. The pass is steep, and adversely affected by weather; but a fantastic ride nonetheless. If any reminder is needed of the risks, just look for the wrecks of vehicles that didn’t quite make it.
Back on The African Road
It’s time to head back to Pretoria. Along the way I glance back and see the left pannier bracket has come adrift again.
I make it to the small town of Balfour and call into a local garage. Explaining my predicament to Pieter, the boss of the shop, he says he can help me, no problem. He disappears and brings back the biggest cable tie I’ve ever seen. He loops it through and zips it up. I swear it could survive a nuclear holocaust.
I thank him, and offer to pay him. He declines my offer, smiles and bids me “Sterkte”. “Good luck” in Afrikaans. I’m very grateful for his help.
I’m back on the road heading towards Pretoria, with the pannier bracket as solid as a rock. It’s a beautiful day, the motorcycle is feeling good, and I think to myself – “I’m feeling great”.
The Next Part of the Road Trip
From Pretoria, I’ll be preparing for the next part of the motorcycle road trip, Botswana and beyond to the mighty Victoria Falls.
When you go:
South Africa Motorcycle Adventures: www.samamotorcycletours.com
Marloot Guest House: www.marloot.co.za
Red Berry B&B (Trip Advisor): www.redberrybb.co.sz
Rorke’s Drift Lodge: www.rorkesdriftlodge.com
Patcham Place: www.patchamplace.co.za
Written by: Keith Erskine
Keith Erskine started his love affair with motorcycles very early; when at the tender age of eleven a family member put him on a Honda Cub and set him loose. Since then he has toured extensively around Australia and through parts of Africa on two wheels. One of the great joys of motorcycle road trips is the people he gets to meet along the way. His love of travel is still going strong, where his latest exploits travelling around Australia can be read at www.travellin-lite.com.au .