Exploring the cultural delights of South Africa by motorcycle

South Africa
David Hubert


South Africa’s Garden Route is an ABR’s paradise of endless tarmac and off-road opportunities. David Hubert and Louise Wilson are exploring its cultural delights two-up

Ever since our first motorcycle trip in California two years ago, me and my girlfriend Louise have been planning our next biking adventure. We were bitten by the bug, and as Sam Manicom says, “the travel bug bites hard, but motorcycle travel bites deep”. In the following 12 months we’d ridden up and down the UK on several long weekends, been to Paris, Brussels, and toured Northern Spain. But as our appetite for travel grew bigger, we longed for further horizons.

It’ll come as no surprise, then, that when work told me I’d be going to South Africa for a conference, the only thing I could think of was, ‘how can I fit in a bike trip?’. This was a fantastic opportunity to explore a country that neither me nor Louise knew much about. So we began sketching out a rough idea to spend some time visiting friends in Cape Town before renting a motorcycle and going off exploring. But that’s as far as we got with the planning. We knew nothing of South Africa and all we could do was read the guide books and ask our non-biker South African friends to recommend some destinations; all very helpful but not really geared towards a motorcycle adventure.

Four weeks before the trip, we ran into Alex Jackson at the Adventure Travel Film Festival, run by Austin Vince and Lois Pryce. Alex has spent many years in South Africa and knows the roads like the back of his hand. He’s a ranger there, so has an intimate knowledge of the country. He also happens to run Kaapstad Motorcycle Adventure Tours so has tons of invaluable advice about riding in this part of the world. We had come prepared with a map of South Africa, hoping to find someone at the festival who’d ridden there and could give us some tips, and we weren’t disappointed! Within minutes of chatting to Alex we were all looking over our map and Louise and I were frantically drawing on it, taking notes on must-ride roads, places to visit, and places to stay.

Wine of the engine

Fast-forward five weeks and there I was in Cape Town airport’s internal flights terminal, being met by Louise after my conference in Durban. In one hand, I carried a small bag containing a suit, some shirts and a laptop. With the other, I was pulling a big-wheeled suitcase, which held boots, bike trousers, two pairs of gloves, a jacket and base-layers; my helmet was my hand luggage. Talk about priorities!

We spent four great days discovering Cape Town; but neither of us could wait for the Monday morning when we’d pick up our bike. Monday came and at 8am sharp we were standing next to a yellow BMW R 1200 GS, being told how to unlock the aluminium panniers and where all the buttons were. Once all the paperwork was signed and my credit card swiped through, we pointed our front wheel north out of Cape Town and headed for the mountains – woo-hoo!

The first destination was Hermanus, which lies on the coast, southeast of Cape Town. The first stop, however, was just around the corner and out of sight of the rental place where I installed our wired intercom system straight to the GS’ battery. I swear by intercoms; they make riding as a couple or group so much more enjoyable and I was determined that Louise and I would be able to chat and share our thoughts throughout the ride.

As we headed north out of the city we were both overtaken by a feeling of elation. The weather was fantastic, the bike felt great and we were finally riding in South Africa! We made it out of the urban traffic, past the dockyards onto the N1 highway and towards the Cape wine region. Hermanus is only about an hour-and-a-half from Cape Town, so we took to the long way round, to make the most of the beautiful scenery. As soon as we were out of town and in the mountains leading to the wine valleys, the scenery changed completely. You’d almost be excused for thinking you were in the Spanish Rioja region. We rode through the Cape wine-lands where French Huguenots settled in the 17th century and left a legacy of fantastic wine-making. Then we stopped at the Solms Delta winery for a taste of local wines, surrounded by historical Cape Dutch farm buildings.

South Africa

After we tasted and bought some wine – the rider spat it all out, I promise – we headed towards Hermanus, our destination for the night. We stayed in an unassuming guesthouse, which offered secure parking for the bike, something we greatly appreciated. Hermanus was pretty quiet that night, understandably so for a Monday in the height of the off-season. Riding in July in South Africa means that you’re riding in the middle of their winter. Of course, it‘s not winter in the British sense, rather the kind of weather we call an Indian summer; pleasant, mild days followed by cold nights. It isn’t the best time to ride in South Africa, but it enabled us to discover the totally underrated benefits of hot-water bottles. South Africans, instead of wasting energy on heating, continue to use this old-school solution. It’s cheap, easy and funnily enough, it works. I’ve decided that the humble hot-water bottle might be an ABR’s most valuable piece of equipment when touring in the colder months.

Off-road ventures

On our departure from Hermanus, riding through the waterfront, we stopped on the off chance that we might spot a whale. Hermanus is one of the best land-based places to spot southern right whales. These enormous beasts start arriving in the area around May, to calve and mate in the shallow waters. We were unlucky this time, however, but were content to take in the beauty of the coastline and the warmth of the splendid morning sun.

We had a long day ahead, 220 miles to Oudtshoorn, the ‘Ostrich Capital’ of the world. First stop was a petrol station where, unlike in the UK, you still get helped by a station attendant who invariably wants to chat about the bike and your travels. That’s the kind of service I like! The ride took us from the lush Atlantic Ocean coastline to the semi-arid valleys of the Little Karoo, with the beautiful Swartberg mountain range ahead of us. Before reaching Swellendam, we decided to go off-road. Maps of South Africa tend to all be a bit different and unless you stick to the main roads you can never be sure which roads are paved and which are dirt. We carried two maps with us to try and get around this, but neither was very helpful.

We followed some dirt roads and got totally lost, ending up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles and miles of empty fields. Suddenly, the trip took a new turn and it became very interesting. Getting lost was what we were after, right? After a few hours, we were back on track after a chance encounter with a friendly local, who was foraging for wood next to the smallest train station I’ve ever seen. It was surreal discovering a miniature stone-built, Victorian-style train station in the middle of an empty field. It must have been used to transport crops in the past. The railway also helped us find our position on one of our maps and soon enough we were on tarmac again.

South Africa

This was a mixed blessing, though, because we had to be careful of hidden dips. Traveling on long, straight, empty roads can lure you in to a sense of monotony but we were brought sharply back to reality when we came across the site of a head-on collision, which had happened moments before we rode by. It seems one driver overtook another, not seeing a third car coming in the opposite direction with disastrous consequences.

We stopped in Barrydale on the border of the Overberg region; a small, isolated village with only a couple of tarred streets, but to our surprise, it had a quaint deli in the middle. After lunch we still had quite some way to go and we decided that our last stop would be Ladismith. The weather became cold and the sun was now very low. We still had a couple of hours’ riding to get in before reaching Oudtshoorn.

We rode the last hour in the dark, which is ill-advised on a bike, but the winter sun sets early in South Africa and I guess we were fooled by the vast distances. To cover 2cm on a map of the UK looks okay – on a map of South Africa, it’s at least two hours’ riding!

Ostrich Country

Our first impressions as we entered Oudtshoorn weren’t great. We were cold, tired and locating our guesthouse in the dark proved difficult. We stopped on the side of the road to read our guidebook, but decided to get on our way quickly as we’d attracted some dodgy-looking characters. To be fair, if I was a dodgy character, I’d also be interested in two lost Europeans on a 12-grand bike. In any case, credit is due to Louise who, while shivering with cold on the back seat, managed to direct us with the help of a very basic map and the light of her mobile.

South Africa

We were surprised to find that our accommodation for the night was a beautiful old stately home that had been converted in a guesthouse. We were the only guests that night, and after giving us the keys, the landlady left us alone in the house and wished us Goeie Nag. The house stood in the middle of a Victorian town, which we hadn’t been able to fully appreciate in the thick darkness, in the middle of the empty Karoo. It was an old, cold, empty stately house, which creaked in the wind, and memories of the movie Psycho were never far from our minds that night!

We woke up early and headed out to the town for breakfast at a games reserve. The bright sunshine showed Oudtshoorn in an entirely different light and it turned out to be a very interesting place. In the late 19th century, a fashion craze for Ostrich feathers drove the price of their plumes incredibly high. Local farmers amassed large fortunes overnight and competed with each other to display their wealth by building magnificent palaces decorated with stained-glass windows, extricate cast-iron work and the best amenities produced in the UK.

On arrival at the Buffelsdrift Games Reserve we sat on a sun-drenched terrace deck overlooking a natural pool. We saw hippos, impalas and warthogs as well as lots of native birds. There is something special about riding a motorcycle in a place populated by exotic animals, and the weirdest creatures we saw had to be the ostriches! Besides the majesty of the town, our night time ride in to Oudtshoorn had also meant we’d missed seeing the countless ostrich farms in the area. As we made our way out of town we came across millions of these gangly birds.

We stopped a few times to take a closer look at the ostrich, but after mile upon mile of roads bordered by ostrich farms, we found a more entertaining way to view them, and that’s a at full pelt. The trick is this; spot a lone ostrich close to the road, creep up on it slowly and quietly, then when you’re just a few meters away from it, rev your engine, blow your horn and start the race. Ostriches are like pigeons, they try to evade you by running in the same direction. The only difference is that these 7-ft tall birds can reach speeds of up to 40mph and have the most comical way of running – they look ridiculous!

South Africa

Heading east from Oudtshoorn we made our way along the R341, through the valley bordered by the Swartberg Mountains and the Kammanassie Nature Reserve, to the village of Uniondale. This is where the spectacular 55-mile Prince Alfred Pass begins. We’d been advised to take the pass only if it was dry as the track could be very difficult to manage two-up if muddy. Thankfully the weather had been clement and we spent one of the most memorable days of the trip riding from the Little Karoo back to the coast.

Home truths

The Prince Alfred Pass is a gravel and dirt track which winds its way through mountains, crosses the river seven times and reaches hill tops with breathtaking views. The flora along the pass changes from semi-arid landscape to forests and the lush valleys of the Middle Keurbooms Conservancy. It took us the best part of the day to cross the pass and we only came across one car the whole time. Of course, Murphy’s Law dictated that the encounter happened at precisely the moment we were having a ‘pit-stop’, but we arrived at the other side of the pass sweaty and dusty with wide grins on our faces.

We experienced a bit of a cultural shock as we came out of the woods and rejoined the tarmac on our approach to the city of Knysna. All of a sudden, we found ourselves surrounded by local people on their way back home after their day looking for work, collecting wood or making charcoal. We rode through the outskirts of the city, which is in essence a shanty town. Although quite different from the terrible living conditions we had observed in the townships outside of Cape Town, there was no doubt that these people lead a harsh life. Most of the ‘houses’ are tin shacks without windows and the smell of paraffin burning was a constant reminder of how basic life is for most South Africans.

There are many facets to South Africa. It’s a country rich in cultural diversity, but it’s also a country of contrasts. It would be easy to visit the Cape region and come back thinking that all is well in the Rainbow Nation, but the reality is that more than half of its 50 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and nearly all of these are black people. I’m mixed race, but I’ve never experienced ill feelings from the white South Africans we met. That said, the legacy of apartheid is still very much a part of daily life here. Most businesses are owned by white people and staff is invariably black. But there is hope that as the country prospers, the cultural change instigated by Nelson Mandela will succeed.

South Africa

Roller coastal

On arrival in Knysna we parked our bike behind our guesthouse and were welcomed by a friendly guard who taught us some words of Xhosa. This tongue-twisting dialect is spoken by about eight million people in South Africa, but it’s nearly impossible for westerners to pronounce correctly due to its use of click consonants – we had lots of fun trying though!

We also learned that, thankfully, we’d missed the Knysna oyster festival by a week and thus would not have to contend, with the thousands of mollusk-eaters it attracts. We couldn’t resist tasting the local delicacy, though, and found it only too fitting to accompany it with a bottle of Cape Classic, the South African equivalent of champagne. Who said you have to rough it every night?

At this point we started making our way back west towards Cape Town again. This time we followed the general direction of the coast along the N2. Between Knysna and Mossel Bay, we were rained upon for mile after merciless mile. The cold and the rain didn’t stop us from enjoying the magnificent views of the miles-long stretches of white sandy beaches and the Indian Ocean, though. Our efforts were rewarded at Wilderness where the sun came out for about 20 minutes to reveal and an amazing rainbow, which stretched the width of a small bay near where we were parked. We cut inland until we turned off south towards Witsand where we would stay for the night. The landscape changed dramatically here; we were now surrounded by acres of rolling green pastures populated by thousands of sheep. We could very well have been in Devon.

I decided to play the ostrich game on a herd of sheep, but this time we became the butt of the joke. I’d failed to notice the big white guard dog in the middle of the herd and when I revved the engine loudly like an idiot, a huge white shape with fangs launched itself at us! All I’ll say is thank god the BMW can reach 60mph in three seconds.

South Africa

We stayed in a small B&B with views across the ocean. Witsand is generally a great whale-spotters’ place, but at the height of winter it’s pretty deserted. We were lucky that the only bar and restaurant was open on that particularly cold night. Once again we were taken aback by the quality and price of food in South Africa. For the equivalent of £10 per person we feasted on local seafood and quenched our thirst with a bottle of delicious, fizzy Cape Classic.

For our last day on the bike, back to Cape Town, we were in for a treat. Riding briefly back inland until we reached the N2 road, our original plan had been to take the unpaved roads to the Hoop Nature Reserve, but we were dissuaded from doing so after all the recent rainfall.

We weren’t even sure that the small ferry would still be operating across the Hoop River. Instead, we decided to take full advantage of our time on the famous R44 coastal road between Kleinmond and Gordon’s Bay. For those of you unfamiliar with this stretch of road, it’s considered one of the most spectacular coastal roads along with the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Having ridden the PCH 12 months before, I can truly vouch for this comparison.

As we were riding this thin stretch of tarmac, hanging from the mountain and overlooking the sea, the sun accompanied us and revealed the Atlantic Ocean in all its splendour. The R 1200 GS performed magnificently on the silky smooth ribbon of tarmac which bends through hundreds of meanders; it seemed that the R44 was built specifically for motorcyclists.

We were sad to come to the end of our South Africa trip, but there are worse ways to do so than riding one of the most beautiful roads in the world with the majestic Table Mountain as your target on the horizon. To read more of David and Louise’s adventures, see www.twowheeltouring.com

South Africa

Who’s Riding?

David Hubert likes his DIY sheepskin seat cover and dislikes road-kill on his sunglasses. He has an interest in colonial history and sites ‘finding an amazing girlfriend who likes bikes as much as I do’ among his achievements. His ambition is to become freelance and travel more.

Louise Wilson likes being able to travel wherever she wants by bike while being so close to her surroundings, but dislikes getting cold easily while riding pillion. She has passed her bike licence, however, and enjoys experiencing new cultures and meeting locals on her travels. Her ability to pack light is a well-honed skill. She’d like to ride from the UK to Cape Town one day.

The bike BMW R 1200 GS

Some people may have views about the R 1200 GS – too expensive, too heavy, bad off-road – but we planned to ride long days, two-up over long distances and decided that this would be the best option for us; we were not disappointed. Although we hired a GS for this trip, our current bikes in London are two BMW F650 Funduros. We traded down to these because we wanted affordable, robust and comfortable mounts for our upcoming London-to-Gambia trip. So far we’re very happy with them and I think they are rather underrated.

Want to do this?

How long does it take? You can do this trip in a week.

When to go? If you have the choice, don’t go during the South African winter (UK summer). It can get cold and wet. Go in the intermediate seasons and you’re guaranteed great weather and mild-to-warm temperatures.

Get there: There are many daily flights to Cape Town from UK airports starting from £650.

Fly or hire? I would recommend hiring a bike in Cape Town if you’re planning on riding less than three weeks. We rented from Cape Bike Rentals www.capebikerentals.com.

Accommodation: We decided to stay in guesthouses every night. There’s a great choice of good-quality accommodation with secure parking facilities available in the area. We recommend Aloe Guest House in Hermanus www.aloe-guest-house.co.za; Buffelsdrift Game Park in Oudtshoorn www.buffelsdrift.com.

Paperwork for you: European citizens can enter South Africa with only a valid passport, there are no visa requirements. I only needed my UK driving license and my credit card to rent the bike.

Is it for you? Riding the Western Cape is an amazing experience. It has everything a rider could ask for from twisty mountain pistes to long highways through the desert and breathtaking coastal roads. You can choose to go off-road or stay on the high-quality tarmac all the time. Although South Africa has a high rate of crime, it shouldn’t dissuade you; be streetwise and you’ll be perfectly safe. It isn’t cheap, but you’ll find that prices are cheaper than in Europe.

South Africa

Top 5 tips for riding SA

  • Take the time to chat to locals and get their point of view on the best roads
  • Layer up your clothing if riding there in the winter; hand warmers are also helpful
  • If you’re planning to visit during the off season, check accommodation is open before turning up
  • Take care on dirt roads if it’s been raining
  • Watch your speed or you could come home to a pile of tickets and fines, which will arrive unannounced through your door

A bit of history…

Nowhere does the definition of Rainbow Nation apply more than in the Cape region. This southern tip of Africa was first inhabited by the Khoikhoi and Xhosa people but from the 17th century, Dutch, French Huguenots and British people settled here, later followed by Malaysians. The result is a fantastic cultural diversity where French-inspired wine is made in historic hatch-roofed Dutch farms and served alongside the curry-flavoured bobotie, meatloaf-type dish. As you would expect after years of brutal repression under apartheid, the Khoikhoi and Xhosa influences are less visible but they are undergoing a great revival and can be found especially in music. This diversity makes the richness of South Africa and multiplies the visitor’s cultural experience tenfold.

Bird watch

Ostrich are large, flightless birds native to Africa, from the same family as kiwis and emus. Although grounded, ostrich have the fastest land speed of any bird and can reach up to 43mph. They’re also the largest living bird and lay the largest eggs of any avian species alive today; ostrich eggs weigh in at around 1.4kg – that’s equivalent to over 20 chicken eggs! Ostrich live in groups of between five and 50 birds. Although cowardly, if an ostrich cannot run away or hide when confronted, it is capable of launching an attack on its assailant by kicking out with its powerful legs. Ostrich are farmed for their decorative feathers, which are used in fashion couture and dusters; skin, which is turned into leather products, and meat, which is slowly rising in popularity as a healthy, low-fat option for use in burgers and as steaks.

Photos: David Hubert & Louise Wilson