I've said before that Cape Town is a terrible place for a bicycle.
We do our best to head north, but our best doesn't get us very far. The oceanside promenade from Sea Point to the Waterfront disintegrates just east of the main tourist drag, and the first moments of our worldwide bike tour are interrupted by a large set of stairs calling it all to a halt.
The bikes are heavy. We're carrying far more food and water than is needed for this crowded corner of South Africa. We can lift them, maybe, but we certainly aren't able to haul them up dozens of narrow steps onto the landing above. Defeated, we dismount and wheel them into a small shopping mall to our left. We smile guiltily at a security guard and trudge on over to the elevator. We move awkwardly with the bicycles and can't both fit into the elevator, so we go one by one, taking the vessel up one story. We shuffle back out of the mall, several meters of elevation gained.
We're back on the road. We snake eastward along the quietest streets we can find, which aren't very quiet at all. There's a service road running parallel to us that sits right against the waterfront we'd hoped might be open for us to use, but it's gated off and security won't allow us entry. We're ushered onto the highway, virtually the only route north for dozens of kilometers.
It's a proper highway. Drivers race their vehicles in tight form around the curves. Truckers blare their horn and tear violent wind vacuums in their wake. Broken glass litters the shoulder, wide enough for a bicycle but far too exposed to feel safe.
We opt instead for a bit of single-track along the grassy side of the road. We pedal slowly, hungry for an exit ramp that'll take us somewhere more pleasant. There's even more debris here than in the road: old tumbleweeds of frayed wire, waylaid windshields, rusty cans. As I ride, a huge sheet of plastic soars across the highway and envelops the front of my bike. I stop as quickly as possible, but the sheet has already worked its way in, wrapping around my hub and disc rotor, clinging to my spokes, rustling at my legs. It takes five minutes to free myself.
This footpath along the highway is interrupted by a few deadend exits. We're forced to race across the busy exit ramps and lift our bikes up the curb on the other side in between pockets of traffic. Finally, our exit (the R27) appears, and we escape the worst of the highway for the relatively calmer (though still very hectic) coastal road.
Fifteen kilometers north of Cape Town, along the R27, a bike path abruptly begins. How one is supposed to arrive at the path is a mystery, but the path itself an unexpected treat. It's set apart from the main road and virtually empty, and soon it cuts over to the coast. We enjoy a good bit of flat, scenic riding through some of Cape Town's ritzier suburbs.
We expected the journey north to begin as a slog. Even small cities like Cape Town create a sort of industrial belt around them, where wild camping spots can be difficult to find. By bicycle, it can take a day or two to escape the patchwork of factories and warehouses and tar, and so we aimed simply to get as far out of the city as we could on our first day.
But with the late start and difficult escape, we're short on daylight and not very far. It's winter here in South Africa, and the sun begins to set around 5:30PM. Over the following hour, temperatures can drop as much as thirty degrees Fahrenheit. It's already past four, and we haven't yet found a secluded place to pitch our tent.
We pull over briefly to discuss. We agree to pedal a little further and just take the first thing that comes. Lauren inches forward to get back on the road. She starts, stops, presses a palm down on her front tire. It's flat.
Together, we've toured thousands of miles over many months without a single puncture. Yet here we are, on our very first day riding through Africa, on a sealed road, and also desperate for a campsite with daylight dwindling, with a tire that has no air and cannot ride.
I do the calculus in my head. Patching a puncture could take ten minutes. Swapping out the tube would cut out waiting for the glue to dry, and might require just five. Pumping up a two-inch tire with our tiny hand-pump might take another five minutes. But if anything goes wrong, if the tire proves difficult to reseat, it's likely we'll be returning to the road in the dark.
We're pulled over at a rest stop, a small cut-out from the main road with a few picnic tables and some dying shrubs. Beyond that, there's a fence, protecting a large nature reserve that is, in itself, a buffer zone for a nuclear power plant just a few kilometers away.
There's a small ditch between the fence and the shrubs where a tent could be mostly hidden from the road. Perhaps optimistically, it could also be hidden, once dark, from anyone using the rest stop. Of course a big orange tent would be nakedly visible to anyone on the other side of the fence, anyone in the nature reserve. But nature reserves tend to be pretty quiet places.
We agree to set up camp here, a reasonable if not ideal spot, and fix the flat in the morning. We pitch the tent and climb inside. We pull on layers, unfurl our sleeping bags, and blow up our inflatable pads. Outside, the sun is already setting.
The sound of whining combustion and crunching gravel interrupts the relative silence. It's coming from the direction of our feet, that other side of the fence.
Doors open. Doors close. A man shouts out something. Quickly, I pull on my shoes and climb out of the tent to meet him on the other side of the chainlink. I quickly explain that Lauren has a flat and that we didn't have time to fix it before it got dark. It is, by now, dark. I press down on the tire nearby to demonstrate its objective flatness.
He's friendly. He's a security guard for the nature reserve, which is technically under the management of the power plant. His shirt is emblazoned with a patch reading Eskom. He explains that the reserve is patrolled at night, and one of his men alerted him to us campers. The primary concern was just how close to the fence we are.
He studies me and seems to empathize with our predicament. He asks for a few details about me, and I offer my name and passport number and tell him a little more about our trip. He radios this information to his central command. His supervisor gives us the all-clear, and I'm told that the patrol will pass by occasionally just to check on us and make sure we're doing okay. I thank him and head back inside the tent.
We eat a dinner of peanut butter sandwiches. I begin reading a book. It's darker now, and much colder. The R27 is quieter. And then, headlights. Gravel pops under the weight of able tires.
Another voice calls from behind the fence. It's the supervisor. He explains that for the past hour or so, he and the rest of the security team have been puzzling about what to do with us. The proximity to the fence isn't the issue; it's the cold. It will get very cold tonight, he says. You don't understand how cold it will get.
To his credit, it is cold, and it is to get even colder. But we're planning a very long journey through some very high elevations in some very cold places in the world, and if we're packed with enough clothes and sleeping bags to tough out a night on a Nepalese pass or the valleys of Tajikistan, I trust we'll survive an evening in South Africa at sea level. I explain this, thanking the supervisor for his concern.
He doesn't relent. It's not safe, he adds. Truckers stop here during the night, and he doesn't really know what they're doing here. This is a rest stop, I think, and so I imagine they're just resting. But he's adamant that this is not a good place to camp.
He says it's all been sorted out. A colleague of his will come by in thirty minutes with his truck. We can load our bikes and bags into the truck, and he'll give us a ride back into town, over a dozen kilometers south, where we'll be welcome to sleep somewhere. It's not made precisely clear where, but it sounds like maybe a police barracks or community center. Somewhere inside. I insist that we're on a budget and weren't planning on paying for indoor accomodations on our very first night, be he insists there'll be no charge. They just want us to be safe.
I consult with Lauren. Neither of us really wants to go through the trouble of packing up, bundling together our tent, loading our bicycles into a van, undoing our past hour of pedaling by returning to the last town, and then coming right back down this unrewarding road tomorrow. But we don't feel, at least at the moment, like we have very much of a choice.
We surrender. Fine, we'll do it your way. The man smiles and gets back in his truck and tells us our ride will arrive within thirty minutes. So we go about packing everything up, bringing our bikes out toward the road, and standing in the cold and dark for a half-hour. Eventually, a pair of vehicles come through the turn-off. We greet two more Eskom employees, our fourth and fifth of the night, and they help us load our bikes into the truck while we climb into the sedan. We caravan off through the darkness toward town.
I'm feeling a little frustrated, but still thankful that these men want to help. Their concern is appreciated. Our driver delivers home his point. "This will really be much better," he says. "You would just be so cold. And robbed, definitely. They would have robbed you. You see, this little town right here," he gestures to a small bundle of lights on our distant left, "it's a Coloured town. The people ..." he seems to catch himself, "well, you wouldn't understand."
I know little of South Africa. I've spent less than a few weeks here over two visits, and I understand the country has a complicated, difficult history not unlike our own. We're traveling the world to learn, not to judge. But to write about South Africa without at least mentioning race, and by extension racism, would be to omit much.
In the United States, where we're from, racism is pervasive and structural and (perhaps increasingly) vocal, but largely, my experience has been that Americans express their racial biases through actions, not words. When biases are spoken, they're often coded. A neighborhood might be defined, even by our most progressive populations, as "sketchy," or a person as "shady," when what's really meant is "non-white" or "non-familiar." There's an attempt at obscuring one's true meaning, to others and perhaps to oneself.
This isn't necessarily a better approach than being open and honest, but what's been striking about my first few days in South Africa (and our last visit here) is the frankness. Yesterday, at Kirstenbosch, our kind, elderly tour guide and her fellow South Africans on tour spoke candidly about the "problems" of South Africa. Redistribution of wealth from the white minority to the black majority isn't the problem, they agreed; it's just that the majority is squandering that redistributed land and wealth. "It's really a matter of education," she explained to us as we were leaving, "if you give uneducated people land, they won't know how to use it properly."
Our brief travels through South Africa to date have featured numerous encounters like this. Even at quick stops on the side of the road, race and politics will inevitably arise (the two seem inextricably linked). Without prompting, an Afrikaner or Englishman will suggest that the nation and its redistributionist government are making poor, ignorant choices. There's concern that the wealth of the country is best kept in white hands until others can handle it responsibly. "Responsibly," of course, is defined as adhering to Eurocentric values, focused primarily on the exploitation of land for profit. Notions like private property and class, foreign imports to South Africa and most of the continent a few centuries ago, are treated as fact, not cultural preferences.
I digress. I know little about what the people of South Africa think, beyond the offhand remarks I hear, the people I've spoken to, and I suppose the Nelson Mandela autobiography I'm working through. It seems a country still in the preliminary stages of grappling with centuries of oppression, decades of apartheid, ages of distrust between English, Dutch, Indian, Coloured, Xhosa, Zulu, and more. I suppose our country isn't much further along.
But at the moment, it's all a bit much. We're being driven to an Afrikaner town by an Afrikaner security guard because he fears we set up camp too close to a non-white settlement. The scary thing about the settlement, we're told, isn't its crime statistics or lore, but its racial composition. And so, we're being rescued.
Instead, we're brought to an out-of-the-way campground asking 160 rand for a night's stay. It's not an unreasonable sum (about twelve US dollars), but we feel duped and defeated. We pay and are dumped by the Eskom crew at a campsite by the toilets.
For the second time this evening, we set up camp. We pitch our tent and unroll our bags and mats and make ourselves cozy. Sometime later, the campground warden appears. "Oh," he murmurs, catching me outside the tent, "you're supposed to be at that site over there. This site is for camper vehicles."
I apologize. I explain that this is where we were dropped off, that we don't speak Afrikaans and thus didn't understand all the conversation happening back at the reception. If the Eskom folks were told where we should be, they didn't relay that information to us. I plead, noting that we've already had to pitch our tent twice tonight.
"I see, I see," he says. "But, you understand, this is caravan spot ..."
I look around. Its pitch black, well after 9PM. It's a Tuesday at a sleepy beachside town in winter. There are dozens of vacant campsites all around us. "Are you expecting many more caravans to roll in tonight?"
He lets us stay.