Cycling Africa – Days 1-5: South Africa

Day 1: Mtunzini to St Lucia

I awake at 4am in the campsite in Mtunzini. I’m camping alone and nobody else is up at this time but the sun is rising and its light enough to see. I use the campsite ablutions and then slowly begin to pack up my stuff. I see no point in showering as I’ll be covered in sweat again by 6am.

I sort all my bike stuff out as best I can and strap it all on in various ways, take one last swig of last nights whiskey and head off into the slowly brightening day. I would like to cycle the N2 freeway to St Lucia as it’s the most direct route but there is a toll-booth coming on from the Mtunzini on-ramp and I’m uncertain they will allow me through. I choose to cycle through with confidence as if I do it every day and nobody appears to notice, although after about 50 metres I hear a muffled shout – oops, too late.

Technically, cycling on the freeway is illegal but I’ve been informed by some people on cycle forums that police are unlikely to pay any attention to you unless it’s within a city. I forge on fearlessly, 18-wheeler trucks zooming past within inches as the road’s shoulder varies in width from a few metres to a few centimetres.

There are lots of roadworks on this section of road so I spend the next two hours squeezing between construction barriers and piles of sand. Eventually, a newly-paved but as yet unutilized road appears on my left, so I take the chance and begin cycling on it, hoping my tyres won’t sink into the tar at any point. I pass a few workers and construction vehicles and nobody seems to mind so I continue, enjoying an entire four-lane highway to myself. Unfortunately, my luck runs out eventually and the tar road turns to unpaved gravel. I decide to test cycling in the stormage drain, which works fairly well but at various intervals, it disappears and I need to rejoin the crazy traffic.

By 8 am I reach a service station with a Wimpy and decide to stop for breakfast. For safety, I hoist my bicycle over the fencing of the outdoor seating area of the Wimpy so I can keep an eye on it from inside. Upon entering, I see a man wearing an official-looking shirt step outside and eye my bike. I ask him if it’s okay that its there, thinking him to be a manager, but it turns out he’s just a customer admiring my bike. A cyclist himself, he offers to buy me breakfast and we take a table together. It turns out he’s a land surveyor heading along the same route as me and even offers to give me a lift but I decline, explaining that it would defeat the object.

We get chatting about cycling and it turns out he’s good friends with a cycling blogger I follow called Blonde on a Bike – a woman named Bridget whom, he informs me, is, in fact, South African and lives in the nearby town of Howick. We eat together and I tell him of my plans, show him my blog and we swap Facebook contact details. I stupidly ordered a second coffee, thinking Wimpy still do free refills, and ended up costing him a bit more on breakfast than he expected. Kindly, he still refuses my offer to split the bill.

We go our separate ways and I fill up my water container before heading back out on to the road. The next section is far quieter, once I pass Richard’s Bay, and the road becomes a simple, dual lane bi-directional road with a very wide, comfortable shoulder. This is a big industrial logging area, lined with endless rows of tall gum trees and a never-ending stream of huge, logging trucks zooming past to collect the days wood. I still cycle in the stormage drain whenever I can just for added safety but it mostly feels like a nice country road out here.

As the day wears on, the heat increases exponentially and I begin to run low on water. Checking my map, I can see that there is a turn off slightly earlier than my intended turn off that weaves past a lake. I decide to get off the freeway here and hope to find somewhere to get water, if not from the lake as a last resort. I cycle on down a deserted road through what appears to be conservation area and eventually stop at a small guest house that advertises a stall. I don’t have any cash to buy water and tragically, their pump is not working. The guy also informs me that the only route to the lake is down a steep, dirt road – something I’ll undoubtedly struggle to get back.

I discard the lake plans and check Google maps. There appears to be a small safari resort up ahead and down a side road, so I head in that direction. It takes me along a very bumpy, sandy dirt road and I have to push my bike at sections, but I eventually arrive. There is nobody around but one of the farm hands point me towards a tap. I’m sure it’s borehole water and can’t be certain its potable but at this point I’ll take what I can get. I fill up and relax in the shade of a tree for a bit before heading back out.

It’s peak sun now at midday and I have to continue along a horrible, bumpy dirt road for a few kilometres before the tar starts again. On reflection, I should have just stayed on the freeway until my turn off – now I’m stuck in rural farmland. Just before I reach the tarred section a local guy on an old, rickety bicycle passes me and I decide I really need to up my game, so I start pedaling hard. Unfortunately, this shakes my bag free from my pannier and it crashes off on to the ground. Luckily, none of my stuff is broken, especially my laptop. I try to strap it on a bit tighter but I’m missing a bungee cord so it’s not very stable.

Eventually, after one more rest stop, I reach the tar road and plan to stop for lunch and a much-needed rest at the Spur steak restaurant in a nearby town a few kilometres ahead. I reach the Spur a sweaty mess and they kindly let me keep my bicycle safely inside the door while I eat. I decide its a good opportunity to do some work and fortunately, their WiFi is working for once. I order the cheapest thing on the menu, a chicken mayo sandwich, and get to it.

After two hours of work and copious glasses of water, I feel I’m rested enough for the last 30 kilometres to St Lucia. I figure it should only take two hours at most but little do I realise there is an endless stream of rolling hills between here and the coast. Despite my rest and feet, my legs are still broken and I’m pretty much drained of energy. More so, with each kilometre I head away from the freeway and towards the coast I become increasingly aware that I have to do this all again tomorrow in reverse. I figure I’ve come all this way, though, and it would be sad to miss out on St Lucia.

Eventually, after what seems like a hundred hills, I arrive in the small town of St Lucia and head towards a backpackers my friend has told me about. Unfortunately, they inform me they don’t have WiFi because there is a problem with the Internet across the entire town. I figure since I can’t work anyway I’ll just camp somewhere cheap and head back to the Spur in the morning for breakfast and work there. They direct me to another backpackers down the road that offers camping for R100 ($7).

When I arrive at the backpackers, the camping section is under construction so they kindly offer me a bed in a dorm for the same price. It’s only a two-bed dorm and nobody else is there so I basically get my own private room for R100. The backpackers looks like it recently burnt down and so facilities aren’t great as most things are in various stages of reconstruction. I don’t mind though as I’m so tired I feel ready to go straight to sleep. I decide to have a brief look around town, quickly grab some food and then head to bed.

On my wanders, I come across a seafood restaurant that has half-price sushi on Wednesday nights. Despite it still being out of my budget, I can’t turn down a sushi special and there doesn’t appear to be much else in the town so I eat three small plates of various sushi rolls and drink two beers. Around about 8pm I walk back to the backpackers and fall asleep before my head hits the pillow.

Day 2: St Lucia

I decide to spend day 2 relaxing my legs after a hard first day. After getting to sleep at 8pm, I awake very early and have a coffee while doing some work. I then head off to Wimpy for breakfast and to try find some Wifi, but unfortunately, theirs isn’t working either. Instead, I just write content for some blogs I’ve been meaning to do while eating bacon, eggs and chips with tea – like a true Brit.

Eventually, I discover an internet cafe with a semi-decent connection and get the majority of the rest of my work done. I then head back to the hostel to check out and get my stuff. After a bit of deliberation, I decid to check into Monzi Safari’s backpackers rather than cycle far out of town to the caravan park. It’s a bit more pricey than I would normally do, at R220, but turns out to be a good choice.

Monzi’s has an incredible setup, with two lush swimming pools surrounded by beautiful, shaded loungers and well-equipped kitchen and BBQ area. They also do a free, albeit small, breakfast and allow guests to bring in their own alcohol – even offering fridge space!

I grab some much-needed supplies from the nearby shops, including bungee cords, a new cooking pot, bicycle lube and a knife for protection. I also grabb a six pack of beer and then spend lunch relaxing by the pool drinking for a few hours.

In the early afternoon I decide to use my spare time wisely and explore the surrounding beach area on my bike. I cycle down to the coast and investigate a few beaches, encountering some guys who have gotten their 4×4 stuck in the sand and then promptly driven into a tree. I offer to try tow them with my bicycle but they just glance at me and then get back to the car.

I then head south towards the Boat Club which takes me along a 4×4 only road that crosses a section of the beach. Despite my best 4×4 cycling efforts, I have to push my bike for a bit but am rewarded by an awesome wooden path through a nature reserve in the St Lucia estuary.

Coming out the other side, I discover the Boat Club where I chill for a bit and have a beer with a plate of chili poppers and test whether I can work purely from my phone. Turns out it’s not too hard.

I then head back to the backpackers for one last chill session and a few more beers by the pool. There doesn’t seem to much happening at the backpackers or in town so I decide to get an early night. Just before bed I receive a message from a friend warning of a potential riot blocking the route I need to take tomorrow. If the riot happens, I not only might not be able to get to my destination but could get caught up in the violence.

I decide to sleep on it and see if I can get more information in the morning.

Day 3: St Lucia

I awake at 6am and have an early breakfast, still uncertain about whether I should risk the ride into a potential riot. I’m not too concerned with actually getting caught up in the riot, just that it’s 30km to the N2 highway and if I get stopped by traffic police there then I will just have to cycle all the way back. I don’t really have time to wait a few hours for the protests to be over otherwise I won’t make my next stop before dark.

Eventually, I decide to wait it out one more day, which is unfortunate as I’m already a day behind and want to spend the weekend in Swaziland. Now, I’ll be lucky to get there by Monday, which means I might miss a day or two of work – money I can hardly do without. Unfortunately, with cycle touring it’s best not to plan to be somewhere on a specific date as you will almost certainly be late.

Fortunately, Monzi backpackers is lovely so I’m not too upset. I spend the morning getting as much work done as I can and then cycle out to explore the Cape Vidal nature reserve. Upon arrival at the gate the woman guarding says I can go in with a bicycle, however, she fails to mention that about 500m down the road there is another fence that clearly states “no bicycles allowed” and has a picture of lions, elephants, hippos and leopards. This gate isn’t manned or closed though, it just has one of those grids that animals can’t walk over, so I figure if there really are lions in here they would certainly have better security.

I cycle in a short way and briefly consider just ignoring the sign but in the end I chicken out, not wanting to be that idiot cyclist who gets eaten by a lion on the third day of his trip.
I cycle around the part of the park that isn’t fenced off along some pretty hairy sand roads and see some zebra and impala. Then I take a side road and discover a horse riding school with a pen full of beautifully kept horses.

By now it’s hot and lunch is calling, so I head back and decide to have a braai (BBQ) and see if any guests would like to join in. I buy some meat, beer and wood and head back, only to be told by the staff I can’t make a wood fire. Luckily, somebody has left some charcoal, so I make a small fire and begin to cook my food. Nobody is around to join, though, so I eat and drink alone and have enough leftover for dinner and possibly even breakfast tomorrow.

Then I just spend the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool, drinking beer and doing a bit more work. I also finish my long overdue blog about sailing Australia. Although there are a few people hanging about the hostel, it’s mostly couples, unlike in South East Asia where most people are single and traveling solo or in a friends group. As a result, I don’t see any opportunities to link up with a group to go out with and decide to just watch a movie on the communal TV and get to bed early.

Day 4: St Lucia to Hluhluwe

Finally, it’s time to head off, so I awake early, pack my stuff and grab some breakfast. I’m done and on the road by 8:30 am.

Things begin fairly well, even though I have to cycle out along the same rolling hills I had come in on. Fortunately, I don’t have the headwind this time and with fresh legs, it takes half the amount of time it took coming in.

I fill up my water at a gas station just before the turnoff to the N2 and chat to the security guard who can’t believe that I live in a tent and am cycling to Tanzania. He says I’m crazy. I agree.

Once I get on the N2, the cursed headwinds return and for the next two hours I fight into them, moving about 5 km an hour up and down hills. Eventually, they recede somewhat and I manage to pick up the pace a bit.

After about 30km, I reach a fairly populated area that goes on for miles and has a wide sidewalk away from the street. This makes for an awesome cycle path and I ride along it for hours saying hi to all the locals I pass. They have little stalls selling pineapples and tea which remind me a lot of India but don’t have any cash on me so can’t buy anything.

Eventually, at around 1pm I arrive at a service station just outside Hluhluwe. I stop for lunch and have a nice discussion with a woman who is a tour guide in the area and kindly offers me some good advice about the hilly areas and where to stay in Swaziland. After a burger and coke, I refill my water and head off to do the last 6km to Bahati campsite. This takes me along a fairly bumpy dirt road which isn’t too bad but when I eventually arrive at the campsite, it looks closed. I decide to try continue on to a backpackers I can see on Google Maps called Bushbaby – closer to the centre of town. Unfortunately, after 4 more kilometres of bumpy dirt road, I reach a very deserted, rundown town and a sign for Bushbaby pointing back the way I have come!

Annoyed, I cycle back and ask some guys in a truck if they know where it is. We get into a discussion of my travels and again they can’t believe what I ‘m doing. The one guy even says “you are lying, you could not have cycled from St Lucia”. Haha, it’s not even that far!

Eventually, unable to find Bushbaby I ring the number of Bahati and a women answers. She asks my name and then opens the gate remotely to let me in, describing how to get to the campsite. It must be low season as the entire game reserve and campsite is completely deserted. I cycle past some impala on the way in and then set up my tent and go for a swim in the swimming pool.

For dinner, I try to make spaghetti with a tin of onion and tomato, only to realize that I don’t have a tin opener and have to settle for spaghetti and cup-a-soup. It begins to sound like a storm is coming so I move my tent under a steel cover and spend some time updating my blogs before heading off to bed.

Day 5: Entering Swaziland

I struggle to sleep because I’m camped on a concrete floor under the steel roof, so I awake a bit later than planned at about 4:30am and, after packing up, only get on the road just before six.

I get warmed up along the dirt road out of Hluhluwe and am greeted by local workers as they walk to the game reserves and farms. I reach the N2 fairly quickly and then pick up the pace, enjoying the wide shoulder and lack of headwind for once.

I am passed by the occasional truck and car along this section but otherwise, the traffic is fairly quiet. Eventually, after about two hours of straight roads and minor hills, I reach a slightly more built-up area that has a number of villages along the roadside. To avoid pedestrians walking in the street the council have built a smooth, wide pavement separate from the road that goes on for miles.

Since it isn’t too busy with pedestrians I decide to cycle along this. It gives the advantage of being away from traffic as well as putting me closer to the villages and locals, all of whom wave enthusiastically and shout “hello” or “sawubona” as I pass.

I stop around 10am at a service station in Mkuze and eat a ham and mushroom pizza for breakfast along with a coffee. Then I stock up on water and snacks, since this is the last stop for the next 50km’s or so to Pongola nature reserve where the Swaziland border post is.

After leaving Mkuze, traffic thins out drastically and I sometimes don’t see a vehicle for up to ten minutes at a time. Again the road is straight and long with occasional small hills until I get near to the border. Then it starts to climb steadily and doesn’t let up for a long while. After about an hour climbing I come over a ridge into a mountainous valley with beautiful, twisting roads snaking along the cliffside.

After a brief and thrilling downhill run, I have to climb again for another half an hour or so out of the valley and over the next pass. Fortunately, this is the last one and as I reach the bottom I stop on a bridge to rest and take photos.

It is scorching hot by now but I only have a few kilometres to go until the border so I figure I should get there by 2pm. I don’t account for one final, long climb after the turn off to the border. I’m so hot I can’t make it up the hill so I stop in the shade of a tree and almost finish my water while desperately trying to cool down.

I rest for half an hour before struggling over the last bit of the rise and coasting down into the nature reserve below. I fly over the animal grate and shoot into the park at full speed, noticing a number of impala and kudu skittering away on the roadside.

I arrive quite soon at the border post, which is tiny and deserted, so within minutes I have my passport stamped and leave South Africa. On the way out the security guard is very interested in my trip and chats to me for awhile. At first I think he is suspicious but he turns out to just be curious, tells me I’m crazy, and sends me on my way.

3 thoughts on “Cycling Africa – Days 1-5: South Africa

  1. Rudy December 25, 2018 / 8:26 am

    You are a brave cyclist doing those roads with the wood truckers on . Good luck on your journey ill be be following trip .

    Like

    • mark December 27, 2018 / 8:26 pm

      Thanks!

      Like

  2. Yvonne January 10, 2019 / 2:50 pm

    Hi Mark, I am really enjoying following your journey.

    Like

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