Crossing the Karoo (Loeriesfontein, South Africa to Pofadder, South Africa)

By the time we drag ourselves from our cozy room and into the quiet streets of Loeriesfontein, it's well past noon. We're outside Spar, the local grocery, filling our already-overstuffed panniers with five days of food. The bikes sway under the weight of our rations. Accompanying the spaghetti and peanut butter and noodles and chips is water. Lots of it. Over sixteen pounds of water is strapped to my rear rack in a pair of bulging plastic bladders. Twenty-five additional pounds' worth are carried in a collection of eight bottles split between the two of us. 

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We're headed to Pofadder, just 230 kilometers north of here. But between us and the small border town lies the Great Karoo Desert, a vast expanse of some of earth's driest, most desolate landscapes. We've been warned not to underestimate the Karoo, nor the few roads daring enough to cut through it. Don't expect people, we've been told. Don't expect shops, nor guesthouses, nor cell service. 

Expect this. Expect sand. Expect gravel. Expect dust and sun and aggressive flatness. Expect to go slow. Expect to go even slower than you'd expect to go. 

We've only recently emerged from a lonely gravel road, the second pass from Clanwilliam. We're wary of leaving the asphalt behind yet again. But here we are, with no other direction available but due north.

A man studies us and our overloaded bikes. He asks where we're headed. "Pofadder," we reply. "Do you know how the roads are from here?" 

"Yes, yes," he responds. "It is my job to maintain those roads. " He smiles proudly. "They are very good."

This buoys our spirits. We learn that there's something brewing on the outskirts of Loeriesfontein. About eighty kilometers up the road, South Africa is building a wind farm. It is to be the country's largest. Africa's largest, if I recall. The government is erecting dozens of enormous wind turbines in the middle of the Karoo to help power the nation and achieve its aims of sustainable energy independence. Foreigners have been brought in. The town is bustling, at least by Loeriesfontein standards. Crews are headed into the Karoo daily. Big trucks carrying delicate components. And so, good roads are needed. Smooth roads.

We thank this man for the information and for his service to the road ahead. And then, we go see these roads for ourselves. 

*** 

He isn't lying. The road is unsealed, but the dirt is well-packed and the surface well-graded. It's as smooth as tar, virtually frictionless, and we roll along at a pleasant pace for a few hours. The only vehicles that pass are those headed to or from the wind farm. It's quiet. It's flat. After the rough days crossing the Cederbergs from the coast, it's a really lovely way to ride.

We've gotten a late start, and we're firmly committed not to push ourselves like we have been. We've agreed to stop by 4PM each day, just enough time for us to pitch camp, cook dinner, clean up, and get inside the tent before the sun plunges beneath the horizon. The land on either side of the road is still fenced off, but we've gotten a little more assertive with our camping strategy. With most of the fences out here standing no higher than four feet, and the land remaining unsupervised and unused, we simply haul our things over the fence and make camp a few hundred meters off the road. Our bright orange tent has little to hide behind in this sparse, beige desert, but it's a quiet enough place that we're given no trouble or notice. 

*** 

There are wind turbines in the distance. Plenty of them. We go to sleep with them just at the horizon, and we're well-aware that this section of the Great Karoo has lofty plans to harness the region's wind and turn it into electricity. 

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It's a wonder, then, that we're surprised to be woken up by our rain fly flapping loudly in the breeze. I step outside to confront a forceful headwind. Perhaps, we quickly realize, this place was chosen for South Africa's largest wind farm because it's a place known to be a bit windy.

We battle the headwind all day. We sit low on our saddles and drive right into it, but we don't get very far. The road is all flats and descents, yet it feels like pedaling uphill. Our muscles ache. Our lips chap. Our spirits, high the prior evening, begin to flag. After five or more hours of pedaling, we call it an early day. We've made it about thirty kilometers. 

We eye our rations closely. We'd packed more water and food than we thought we'd need, but if this headwind continues, we're woefully unprepared. We drink carefully and hope for easier pedaling in the days to come.

Things are a bit better the next morning. We edge past a few makeshift outposts where administrators oversee construction of the turbines. We pass the turbines themselves, magnificent white pillars towering high above us. They appear complete, but the blades sit stubbornly still in the presence of strong gusts. It seems the power lines must still be run, and the wind farm is yet to go online. We cross a turn-off for a salt mine, whence trucks haul massive quantities of salt and sand to the construction sites down the road. And then, we reach the end of the construction zone.

It's casually evident by a lack of vehicles or trailers up ahead. But it's more immediately evident by a complete deterioration of the road. There's a sudden, violent change from smooth, maintained, mission-critical surfaces to loose, neglected, crumbling infrastructure underfoot. Our bicycles begin to slide in the mess that follows, fishtailing under their rear weight and slipping through heaps of rock, salt, and sand. The road becomes corrugated, and our bones rattle as we heave ourselves up and down its bumps.

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We move slowly. Gradually, we get our footing. We resist the urge to bail out as our bikes begin to tip, growing more comfortable fighting the forces of sand and soil beneath the wheels. We drop into lower gears and press through the tough spots carefully and deliberately. Occasionally, huge piles of deep gravel do force us to jettison our bikes and push them to sturdier surfaces. It's arduous work.

Yet the scenery begins to make up for it. It's nothing dramatic, the Great Karoo. It's featureless. It's desolate and level and seemingly an infinite tiling of the same square patch: scorched sand, a thirsty shrub or two, and a few fist-sized rocks. Again and again and again, out in every direction. 

It's boring, sure, but beautiful too. The drab landscape causes even the most basic thing to appear marvelous. Around noon, we pass some dry reeds whistling in the breeze, and they appear to hide pure mysticism in their brush. Later, we pedal by a salt flat, and it's the most exciting thing we've seen all day. Even the briefest downhill feels like an adventure, the shortest hill a worthy opponent. 

We bike until four: quitting time. Since passing the mine, we haven't seen any signs of life. We've passed no vehicles and no vehicles have passed us. The fences on our sides are a little taller than the nights before, and so we just camp in the sand on the side of the road. It's a nakedly visible spot, but no cars travel this route during the seventeen hours we're camped here.

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*** 

A mapping program we're using suggests that our 283-kilometer route to the Namibian border contains only 188 kilometers of gravel roads. I'm convinced this means we'll hit sealed roads very soon, and our final stretch into Pofadder will be smooth cycling.

We're turning onto a different road up ahead, the R358. It's a regional road, not a main thoroughfare, but at least it has a name. Our current road has no name that we can discern. I encourage Lauren all the way to the R358, promising pavement. It's not much further, I say.

We finally reach the R358. I open a cattle gate and we bring our bicycles around to to the other side. There is no tar to be seen. Instead, the R358 is a ribbon of gravel trailing out in both directions. The rocks pile high upon the surface, big unforgiving bricks of grey stone. It's all hopelessly corrugated, an endless washboard. For a few moments, all hope is lost. 

Perhaps it's just being re-graded, I tell myself. Perhaps it's all asphalt on the other side of this hill. We get on our bikes, bump along the road at a walking pace, and aim for the hill ahead.  But the next section is even worse than the last.

We pedal all day, and again we don't make it far. Hours of effort yield only fifty or sixty kilometers of progress, distance we could manage in maybe three hours under better conditions. Our spines ache from the jarring motions. Our skin is burnt, and our lips are peeling, and our water reserves quickly dwindling. 

We won't be making it to Pofadder tonight. We'd started the day with just a hundred kilometers to go, with dreams of a warm meal and a comfortable bed later this evening. Instead, we're still mired in the depths of the Karoo. 

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It's our fourth day here in the desert. We haven't spoken to another human in days. Up until a few trucks came barreling by this afternoon, we hadn't seen another human in a day or two. There is profound emptiness all around us that's eerie but not altogether unenjoyable. We reach a crossroads where the R358 meets another thin vein crossing the Karoo from east to west. We park our bikes in the middle of the intersection. We sit in the middle of the intersection. Everything is still. Nothing is here.

If a car were coming, we would hear it. In these parts, sound travels far. We might be taking a break on the side of the road and hear a faint din carried by the breeze. "Car a-coming," one of us will say. Minutes will pass. Five minutes will pass as the sound of an engine tearing along the road at sixty or seventy or eighty miles per hour grows louder. We do the math: we heard that one from five miles away.

We camp that night, among the sand and the infinite stars, as the sounds of perturbed sheep creep into our tent. In the darkness and isolation, it sounds like the sheep may have us surrounded. It's so very loud. But in the morning, we spot the sheep grazing behind a fence, a few fluffy orbs perhaps a kilometer away.  It takes another moment to get our bearings. We'd hiked about seven hundred meters off the R358 to set up camp, and were it not for the power lines rising up from the side of the road, we might just be lost. in all directions, everything looks exactly the same. 

*** 

These days of codependent solitude remain pleasant. We fall into a routine we've lacked in the days before entering the Karoo. 

Traveling the world by bicycle is, in some ways, not so different from our lives back home. We wake up in the same place most mornings: under the familiar canopy of our tent. It's a predictable temperature: freezing. We lie in bed for a little while, talking, and then decide it's time to start our day. We usually skip breakfast. We get ready for the world outside, which involves dressing and packing a bag or two. We greet the day with a task to work towards: cross these mountains, cross this desert, get to the R358, get to Pofadder. We spend most of the day working toward that goal. Sometimes we achieve it; other days we run out of time and save the rest for the following day. We stop for the evening and return to a familiar home. We make ourselves dinner and wash our dishes. If we have the energy, we might take care of a few chores: sew the tear in some clothing, tighten a loose bolt. If we're not too tired, we'll read for a little before bed.

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It's a routine that grows familiar, and it's comforting in its simplicity. Here in the desert, we practice it in its simplest form: devoid of people, devoid of the static of civilization. At times blissful, at times spartan, it reminds me of a quote (oft-misattributed) I once read:

"The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religions. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both."

I would not claim to be a master in the art of living, but I feel our new life, pedaling around on these little bicycles, approximates the sentiment. Our play is work, our leisure full of willful labor. Adapting to this way of being is a dance between mind and body. Our travels are fun, yes (and at times, no), but we're learning all the same: about ourselves, about each other, about this little corner of the world for the moment and the next one once we reach it. We're simply doing the best we can, and it's not always easy but it's mostly worth it.

 ***

We emerge from the Karoo on our fifth day since leaving Loeriesfontein. We endure another forty kilometers of the worst roads we've ever ridden in our brief careers as bike travelers. Pofadder, population 3,287, is a one-story town with little to remark upon, but to a pair of dusty desert wanderers like us, it feels simply cosmopolitan. 

We arrive, miraculously, with no broken spokes. Our wheels are intact, our frames secure, our tubes puncture-free. Our backs are a little worse for wear, our lips woefully chapped, our clothes more torn (and a lot dirtier) than when we entered. Our tanlines are striking. Sharp divisions demarcate what got covered and what didn't at the middle of the face, at the wrist, halfway along the fingers where our cycling gloves end. We look like oddities in need of a shower.

And so we do just that. We haven't spent a single rand in four days. Lodging here is expensive for our budget, but we're running a surplus and can afford a night or two. We check into a lovely hotel. It's nothing special, yet to us it's luxurious. We're told the remaining fifty kilometers to the Namibian border is more of the same: awful, corrugated roads. Our spines deserve a rest.

We've crossed our first country by bicycle, and it feels great. We've crossed our first desert by bicycle, and we made it out with a few extra ounces of water to spare. Namibia will be different, for sure. We have much to look forward to: more wildlife, better dirt roads, a return to a place we remember warmly and fondly. Southern Africa remains on the horizon, but South Africa, for us, is just about through. We've made it out of the Cape, over the Cederbergs, across the Karoo.

Now, we're off to the Kalahari. 

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