Settling in and setting out (DC, USA to Cape Town, South Africa)

Greetings from South Africa! Before we start sharing stories from the road, a few quick things: 

(1) Each post has an author, visible right above. We're traveling together, but at times have certain experiences and reactions independent of one another. Anything shared on this blog is, of course, only the author's opinion. So this post is my recollection of our first few days traveling, and those feelings may or may not be shared by Lauren (and when Lauren writes, vice versa).

(2) Publishing long, image-laden posts from a cell phone can be a little challenging. Apologies if anything formats strangely on a desktop. If so, please let us know and we'll try to get it fixed.

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It's daybreak, wherever we are.

Above the clouds, above the earth, above Africa. Down below lie vast open spaces. They're punctuated by thin meandering lines of tar or dirt or single-track. Up here there are no borders, few landmarks. I look out the window and gaze down at our coming months. 

We land in Cape Town. We follow the crowds through the airplane, through the terminal, through the customs line. We're welcomed to South Africa with a passport stamp and a perfunctory greeting, then sent forward to collect our bicycles from the oversized baggage corridor. 

We collect our bike boxes. They're heavy, misshapen, bulging with the abuse of handlers and conveyor-belts and the unrelenting rain we left behind in America. We heave them onto luggage carts and wheel them into the sunlight. We find a cab large enough for the boxes, our bags, and the rest of us. We're taken west.

We're not headed to Cape Town, but to Muizenberg, a small beach town about twenty-five kilometers south of the city. Our hosts for these first three nights are Meg and Steve, virtually strangers up until this moment. We've corresponded a few times online through Warmshowers, a community pairing people traveling by bicycle, like us, with those willing to host bike travelers, like Meg and Steve. It's part of the informal gift economy, where humans give to other humans without expecting anything in return.  The couple, having completed a two-week bike tour up South Africa's west coast last winter, has very kindly agreed to give us a warm bed in a spare room while we settle in.

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Our taxi arrives at their gate. We're welcomed by the barks of Meg and Steve's dogs, Jengo and Drifter, and shortly afterward by Meg herself. She greets us warmly and helps us carry our things indoors.

The home is lovely. It's a cozy, beautifully decorated ranch house with big glass windows. They invite in gorgeous views of the hills and undulations of the Cape Peninsula, the amber glow of the setting sun, hints of the Indian Ocean cresting and crashing on the shoreline just a few hundred meters south. Through the windows, just across the road, rests a placid inlet of water. It's surrounded by flora, by vast green spaces, by neighbors walking and children playing and dogs chasing birds, each other, their own tails. It's called a vlei, this watershed, and it's an active nature preserve land community park literally steps from Meg and Steve's doorstep.

We spend the evening getting to know Meg and Steve, and their wonderful housemates, Chris and Beckie, and about a dozen of their good friends too, who come by for dinner and drinks. We've landed just hours ago, and already we feel at home, welcomed, surrounded by kind, interesting people who seem curious and supportive of our journey. We're exhausted and jetlagged and desperately in need of some rest, but we stay up as late as we can, savoring the experience, before calling it a night.

*** 

In the morning, we reassemble our bikes. We connect handlebar to stem, hub to fork, pedal to crank. We tighten our brakes and adjust our seats and ready these twenty-five-pound hunks of steel, aluminum, and rubber for a bumpy ride across the continent. 

Meg and Steve suggest, if we're up for it, an overnight bike ride down the coast. It's been a while since they've taken a proper pedal, and they have the keys to a friend's cabin down in Smitswinkelbaii, a place Meg promises we'll enjoy. We don't need much convincing. By late morning, the four of us have loaded up our bikes with food, clothes, and beer. We begin pedaling. 

The coastline is spectacular, all cliffs and sand and winding roads. We take a few breaks. Steve gets a snack. Meg detours us through a mainland penguin colony, and we close in on a few of the little birds resting in the bushes. Traffic calms as we cycle further. The road climbs, and we climb with it.

By mid-afternoon, we arrive at an unmarked trailhead branching off the paved road. It's no place for bicycles, but that's the very point. Smitswinkelbaii is special precisely because of its isolation. There are no roads in, no cars or quads or bike paths, just a few rocky footpaths hardly wide enough for two hikers to squeeze by. 

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For us, that means heaving our (partially) loaded bicycles down a steep hill with all the requisite grunting, slipping, and sliding one would expect. One by one, we work our way downwards, clutching our brake levers and guiding our bikes around the tighter bends. When the terrain becomes too rocky, which it often does, we lift them by their top tubes and carry them. It's punishing work, but we're rewarded by sight of Smitswinkelbaii down below.

It's a village of summer homes, mostly, a smattering of perhaps a dozen mismatched houses littered about the bay. They conform to the contours they're given. Some sit on slats or stilts. Others rest atop a ridge or perch flatly on a level butte. From up above, Meg points out our destination for the night. It was the very first home built here,  over a century ago, and it's close enough to the water to hear the gentle waves kiss the sand.

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We settle in. Chris joins us later, parking his car up on the cliff. A few of us hike up to his vehicle to haul down the essentials: firewood, wine bottles, food. We spend the remainder of the evening consuming those essentials, seated around the fireplace as a big pot of chili cooks above it. 

The night grows cold, and we retreat to our beds. In the morning we walk down to the beach. Boulders are scattered about, and we spend a few hours climbing them on the way to nowhere in particular: a vista on the shoreline's northern edge, a shallow cave on the southern side. The village is still, quiet, empty. Eventually, we return to the house. We wash dishes. We pack our things. We lock up behind us. And then we begin the arduous work of hauling our bicycles and our bags and our bodies back up the steep slopes of Smitswinkelbaii.

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It's evening by the time we pedal back into Muizenberg. Chris makes us (another) delicious dinner, and our new friends crack open a South African road atlas to help us discern a way north. We're in no rush, we say, and we want to see the best of what this side of South Africa has to offer. Meg, whose work involves studying eagles deep in the Cederberg Mountains, and Chris, an avid hiker of those mountains, point us in a direction we may enjoy.

The plan is to start along the coast, following the Western Cape's flatlands about a third of the way to Namibia. We'll then veer east, slamming right into the Cederbergs in all their splendor. And then: dirt roads, desert scenery, the border. 

It's settled, and the next morning we turn north. But we're not through with the relative comforts of the city just yet. Up along the western edge of Cape Town, a Couchsurfing host named Kimberly has very kindly agreed to put us up for another two nights. We spend the morning dodging heavy traffic on one of the main (and only) roads from the Cape suburbs, and we're warmly greeted by Kimberly at her Sea Point flat by mid-afternoon. We're treated to more generosity: warm soup, a comfortable bed in her spare room, and more gorgeous views right out the window, this time of Cape Town's iconic Lion's Head mountain.

We rest, shower, unpack our things. Kimberly swats away our offers to make her dinner and instead treats us to a lovely feast in her flat with her and a friend. We spend yet another evening sitting by another fireplace, meeting wonderful new people, and feeling thankful for the tremendous hospitality the people of South Africa have shown us in just our first few days. 

*** 

Lauren's eager to make it to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens the next day. We hadn't time for it the last time we were in Cape Town, and it's not the most accessible place by bicycle (seventeen kilometers, up a hill, back the way we'd come), but it's a beautiful day and, they say, a beautiful place, and this time around, time is on our side. 

Cape Town is not a very good place for biking. We wrap around the city on the crowded M4 and it's every bit as chaotic as the day prior. Group taxis honk as they approach and swerve right in front of us, every few hundred meters, for the chance to usher onboard a few more passengers. There's lots of climbing to be done and little shoulder to hide in.

We make it, finally, and Kirstenbosch itself proves a lovely oasis from the speed and noise of the city below. It's a sprawling botanical preserve, melting right into the grand formations of Table Mountain and the rest of the Table Mountain National Park. The views are spectacular. We amble along on a free guided tour through the grounds, stopping regularly to hear a little more about this or that flower. I don't care much for the tour, which focuses mostly on what Europeans decided to call Africa's plant life upon their arrival to the continent and the Eurocentric anecdotes behind those names, but the flora itself is stunning. 

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We stroll by aloe trees a meter tall, by acacia trees shedding their fragile skin, by endangered prehistoric pillars of tough bark, by a wild acorn tree forcing its way through the forest like a jungle gym. A walking bridge takes us high into the canopy, and we look out at Cape Town to the north, at Cape Town and the lands beyond. On the way back to Kimberly's we'll get some groceries. Back at Kimberly's, we'll get a little more sleep. And then tomorrow, we'll leave this all behind for whatever's up ahead.

*** 

The sun is high in the sky by the time we get around to leaving. Kimberly, like Meg, left early this morning for work, and very kindly left us her key so we wouldn't have to rush out. And so we pedal away from Sea Point without fanfare, without looking back for a wave, just two naive travelers swaying under the weight of their panniers with sights set on Egypt.