After sitting around Joburg for a while, I finally climbed on the bike and headed out. Since I'd been there for about 3 weeks or so, I actually read part of my guidebook to see where I wanted to go. I don't particularly like to study these things to death because that takes the fun out of it. I decided I wanted to go through Swaziland just because it was there. I wanted to see Durban as well, so I decided to head through Swaziland and down to Durban. When I got to Durban, I figured if I were feeling my oats I'd go back north through Lesotho (pronounced like "Lesutu"), and if not I'd just head down the coast.
I'd been sitting around in Russia pretty much for the last six weeks of my stay there, and another month in Joburg so I was a bit out of shape once again. I headed out following one of the main national roads, primarily because it was the road that went where I wanted to go, and in my sloth I hadn't obtained a very good map. I would later pay for the bad map purchasing, but even if I had a great map, this is the road I would have chosen. I'm learning more about what roads look like on a map compared to what they look like for real as I go along. Ordinarily, one would assume that you wanted to avoid a big national highway. It turns out that in most places, the national roads are freeways when they get close to big cities, and in between they can be anything from a cozy little two lane road to a freeway, depending on traffic. If your map is pretty good, you can get a reasonably good idea of what a road looks like from the size of the line on the map.
The first day out of Joburg, I ended up in a pretty wild thunderstorm. It wasn't life threatening or anything, but it was the first time I've been riding a bike when I could see lightning on both sides of the road. I amused myself by riding along thinking "You know, one of those things could come down and fry me to a crisp!" Of course, I actually knew that such an event would be very unlikely, and it might even be impossible for all I know. It was amusing though. I rode along until I was tired of getting rained on, and then took a break under an underpass for a while. On the way out of Joburg, I ended up on a toll road. I suspected it might be a place where bikes aren't allowed, so I went up to the toll booth assuming that if I wasn't allowed the attendant would tell me. I paid my toll, and he just waved me on through. That made the last time I paid a toll in SA. I don't mind paying the toll since I'm a user of the road just like everyone else, but the rest of the attendants I encountered wouldn't take my money. They just pointed to some little shortcut that was obviously for bikes and told me to go through.
The next order of business was paying the piper for my sloth. After a period of laziness, it always takes me a while to get back into shape. I've done it enough times now to know about how long. For the first few days, I could only ride a pathetic 50-60 km (30-40 Miles), or about 3-5 hours of riding at a not-all-that-blazingly-fast speed. Then I'd find a hotel, take a shower, lay out on the bed and die for a few hours, eat dinner, sleep again and repeat. It takes about 8 cycling days of this to get back to some kind of decent conditioning. Follow that with a couple of days rest, and another week and my condition is about as good as it ever gets. One of these days I'm planning to do a serious ride and see if I can get to the next level of performance.
For the first few days, I cycled through mostly rolling hills that looked a bit like this. It wasn't all that exciting, but it was good cycling. The roads once I got a few hours outside of Joburg were nice for cycling. This particular national route was mostly a two lane road with nice shoulders, roughly like the better parts of the Bruce Highway in Australia. That turned out to be true throughout SA. The roads right around Durban, Joburg and Cape Town were a bit dicey, but the national roads everywhere else were perfectly fine for cycling. You really need to have a decent map for going into the cities though.
About 3 days outside of Joburg I got my first broken spoke. I'm not sure why I managed to ride the first 7,000 km (4,500 Miles) without any broken spokes, but I got a whole rash of them in South Africa. It could be because I had some spokes that were loose and rode it for quite a while before I got them tightened up in Australia. Maybe it was because I have more weight than I used to. I ended up with one pannier bag full of books I couldn't quit leave behind in Joburg now that I'm reading again. Maybe I packed on a few pounds. Maybe it's because I started encountering more mountains than I've been riding. I don't really know. I ended up with three broken ones, and the bike still worked fine but I didn't want it to keep getting worse.
I stopped in a small town to get the spoke fixed. This shop owner did the work, but by the time I got everything organized to go it was late so he invited me to stay at his house with his son. The son is an aspiring cycle racer that just finished one season and seems to be doing well. This was the first time I went inside one of the fortress houses I see everywhere in SA. I talked to these guys about it, and it turns out that the fences, security and all that are pretty necessary. In this particular case, he's had a car stolen twice and a half-dozen break-ins. I actually found that all over SA. I never talked to anyone that didn't know someone personally that's had something big like a car stolen. I don't mean people that know a friend of a friend, but someone close. It's not a very scientific survey of crime, but there you have it.
I don't quite know why, but after the first broken spoke, I ended up with a whole rash of them. Spokes generally break in threes because of the way the load is distributed. I stopped and got 3 spokes fixed about 3 times before I made it out of Lesotho. After Lesotho, I stopped and had the entire wheel re-spoked. That lasted exactly a week before I had another broken set and by then I'd had enough. I bought a new wheel for the back that has 36 spokes instead of the standard 32. I'm actually pushing my bike pretty close to it's specified weight limits. I weigh in at 200 pounds (90 kg) or so (in my light phase), and carry an enormous amount of gear (somewhere between 70-100 pounds or 30-45 KG), plus up to ten pounds of water so I was probably pushing my luck. I haven't had any trouble in the 4,000 km since I got the new wheel.
The town this shop was in has a pretty large black population, and this was my first real exposure to SA Blacks outside of Joburg. During the Apartheid era, Blacks all had to live in townships outside of the cities. Soweto around Joburg and the Cape Flats around Cape Town are the biggest. For the most part, they still do. They can legally live in the best houses in town, but can't afford it. They have most of the political power now, but are still short on economic power. Basically, every town I went through in SA has a township that looked something like this really low quality photo on the way into town. I rode through the townships a few times, and stopped there for lunch once or twice; but most of the time the highway goes by it close enough to see it easily and I didn't bother going inside.
There were a lot of blacks working or hanging out in the center of town. I rode into town on Saturday, so it wasn't a workday for most of them (the ones that have jobs anyway). I started to get a sense of little bits of the differences between black and white culture from the way they react to my bike. Blacks tend to be very vocal, outgoing and expressive both when I'm riding by and when I stop to talk to them. Whites tend to be a bit more reserved. It's guaranteed to be an inaccurate oversimplification, but for the most part the blacks reminded me of Vietnamese in their general reaction to me and the bike, and the whites remind me of Australians. They'll hate that assessment, as SA and Australia have a bit of a rivalry going back hundreds of years, but that's the way it appeared to me.
Everywhere I went, I asked everyone of any color that I talked to if they thought South Africa was on the right track. Very nearly everyone I asked the question to answered that they thought it was. In the minds of those I talked to, apartheid was a horrible system that they felt powerless to stop. When it went away, it was replaced with something that's going to take time to get fully working right, but that it will eventually happen.
Once I had the bike up to speed, I headed out for Swaziland. When I started getting close, I started encountering mountains. Most of this trip, I've happened to be in relatively flat ground. I climbed a few small mountains in Vietnam and Oz, but for the most part I've been riding in either rolling foothills or outright flat ground. Both Oz and European Russia are very flat (remember that if you want to start cycling and want an easy introduction). The mountains of Swaziland are actually the whole reason they exist. I'll go into it more in the history page, but the short version is that historically, the Whites have taken over every place that they could take over. Some of Blacks eventually learned how to fight back, within certain limits. The only ones that successfully held off the Whites though are those that both evolved new styles of political and military leadership, and took over defensible positions. Both Swaziland and Lesotho are mountainous areas where different groups of Blacks established kingdoms that were defensible enough to not make them worth the trouble of taking them over. Make no mistake about it though... if gold or diamonds had been discovered in the mountains instead of the plains the Whites would have taken them over, but in this case the two kingdoms managed to survive to the present day.
The last couple of days riding into Swaziland weren't the hardest climbs I ever did, but I had more climbing than I had anywhere previously on this trip. When into Swaziland proper, it looked like this pretty much all the way around.
My first night in Swaziland, I made a tactical error. My guidebook listed one hotel right near the border post, and I actually saw one on the SA side of the border as well. I talked to one of the border guards though, and he told me there was a better one a few km inside the border. I rode until I saw the one in LP and didn't like the look of it, and kept going. I went down a looonnngggg hill without finding the one the border guard told me about. It appeared that the border guard and I weren't speaking the same lingo, and I should have taken the one that I saw just inside the border.
You may remember I talked about my unreasonable fear of solo camping back in Russia. It didn't magically go away in SA, and Swaziland was no exception. I had all the stuff to camp, but there was a definite dearth of good campsites in the area I was in. It was a very heavy construction area, with lots going on and a lack of trees which I usually like to use for cover. I'm writing this way later than it happened because I'm a slacker. In fact, I'm in Madrid right now and I can tell you that I actually never camped in SA. There were a few times I came close, but when it got right down to the wire, I always found some way around it, which I'll cover later. In every case, things worked out quite well, but I always had the nagging feeling that I was just chickening out on something simple. There are in fact places in SA that are dangerous, and there's a difference between just cruising through some place and setting up camp. However, I don't really think I'd have been in any real danger most of the time... I just didn't want to do it. I finally tackled my fear a year later in Spain, and I'm quite comfortable with solo camping as I write this now, but I never bit the bullet and got on with it in SA.
In this particular case, I stopped by the side of the road to check my map and guidebook just in case someone had magically put something in there that hadn't been there the last three times I checked it. This tow truck driver stopped to check out the bike, so I asked him just in case he knew of anything. He said there was nothing unless I rode back up the long-ass hill I'd just come down. At that point in my development, I was still in burn-out-sloth mode, and I was tired and in no mood to spend an hour riding back to somewhere that I was just at. The driver offered to give me a lift into town.
He gave me a ride into the capital city of Mbabne, and helped me find a hotel there. We went through 3 that were full, but finally ended up at one that was suitable. I stayed an extra day there to take a rest day and look around again. He offered to take me out to the border as it had a lot of hills to climb. I felt a bit like a pansy, but I took him up on the offer and he carried me up a long set of climbs to the border and sent me on my way.
I can't really say I learned a lot about Swaziland on the way by. I wanted to see it, and I saw it. All the people I ran into there were quite nice. Swaziland is an interesting place. It's one of the last true kingdoms left on the planet. They have a hereditary king. He has a cabinet, but can ditch them anytime he feels like it. There have been a few moves toward democracy, but nobody I asked about it seemed to be in any great hurry. They all are pretty happy with the king, and don't seem to think having elections would magically make their lives any better. Most of the problems that happened in SA seem to have bypassed Swaziland. It started out as a mountain fortress for Blacks escaping White expansion, and it's been controlled by Blacks for the most part ever since. There have been the usual internal squabbles, but for the most part the Whites left them alone and they progressed along on a separate path. There doesn't seem to be as much animosity between the races as in SA.
I have a sort of love/hate relationship with guidebooks and I'm always a bit reluctant to read very much about the places I'm on my way to. I figure if I read too much about a place, I'll just be pre-loading my impressions with the guidebook writer's impressions, and I'll also just end up in the same tourist place as all the other tourists. At least in the beginning, I'd rather start out by just going in and looking around to see what I see. Besides that, I'm lazy. At any rate, I very rarely read anything in very much detail before I get there. This sometimes costs me because I might go right by something I'd really like to have seen. That happened in Swaziland. One of the oldest known mines in the world, dating from around 41,000 BC is in Northeastern Swaziland. By the time I read about it, I'd ridden right by the road that went to it. If I'd known about it, I could have turned at the border and been there in a half day. By the time I read about it, I was 2 days hard riding back up some serious hills that I wasn't quite ready to tackle to get there, and then another two days to get back where I already was. I didn't want to see it that bad. I still haven't figured out how to handle this dilemma, but since I rarely get burned that bad I'll probably continue my lazy tradition.
About the time I took the photo above, I noticed that I was climbing a hill and enjoying it. This is a sure sign that I'm getting back into cycling shape. It was on day 8, and I've found that it generally takes me 5-8 cycling days, followed by 2 days of rest to get back into some kind of reasonable condition. I was also once again reminded that I really love mountains. I grew up in mountains and spent most of my life there. When I travel, I'm always a bit surprised when I end up in the mountains and love them. I'm not sure why I'm surprised, but I am. One thing about mountains though, is that they definitely reduce the number of miles you can ride in a day. In Oz, I was obsessed with distance. Oz is a good place to be obsessed with distance, because except for that nasty headwind on the Stewart Highway, it was great terrain for big distance days. I ended up riding a lot more mountains in SA than I have anywhere else. Most of my life, I've only really liked cycling up hills. I used to get to the top of a hill and say "Fun's over! Nothing left but to ride back down". After riding a lot of mountains in SA, I'm beginning to move back to that attitude; although not quite as obsessively.
One thing I found interesting was that all the road signs in Swaziland were in English, even though English is not their official language. Most billboards and business signs are as well. I suspect this is just accepting the reality that English speakers are the ones bringing in the money that drives their economy, but I still found it strange.
Next - Kwazulu-Natal