Riding in South Africa
If you’re looking for a bike tourer’s paradise, then look no further. The riding in South Africa is blissfully diverse and always interesting, with generous speed limits – on most major roads 120kph (75mph), lesser routes 100kph (60mph) and in towns 60kph (35mph). Vehicles drive on the left and the general standard of driving is high… and polite.
Roads differ greatly, and although the general standard of surfaces is high and routes are smooth, there are areas with lots of potholes. Some minor roads are graded dirt, but these are generally well maintained and smooth. We have scoured the country for what we believe are the best combinations of riding, natural beauty and interest. The riding quality comes high on the agenda and what riding it is – mainly twisty, grippy and sublimely scenic.
The Rand is South Africa’s currency and you will find everything cheap. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are commonplace.
There are currently 19 Rands to the UK Pound.
South Africa has nine provinces, which vary considerably in size. The smallest is tiny and crowded Gauteng, a highly urbanised region, and the largest is the vast, arid and empty Northern Cape, which takes up almost a third of South Africa’s total land area.
On dry land, going from west to east, South Africa shares long borders with Namibia and Botswana, touches Zimbabwe, has a longitudinal strip of border with Mozambique to the east, and lastly curves in around Swaziland before rejoining Mozambique’s southern border.
In the interior, nestled in the curve of the bean-shaped Free State, is the small mountainous country of Lesotho, completely surrounded by South African territory.
South Africa has three capitals: Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. The Western Cape city of Cape Town, where the country’s Parliament is found, is the legislative capital. In the Free State, Bloemfontein is the judicial capital, and home to the Supreme Court of Appeal. In Gauteng province, Pretoria, where the Union Buildings and a large proportion of the civil service are found, is the administrative capital, and the ultimate capital of the country.
The largest and most important city is Johannesburg, the economic heart of the country. Other important centres include Durban and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Climate and Topography
Although the country is classified as semi-arid, it has considerable variation in climate as well as topography. The great inland Karoo plateau, where rocky hills and mountains rise from sparsely-populated scrubland, is very dry, and gets more so in the north-west, towards the Kalahari desert. Extremely hot in summer, it can be icy in winter.
In contrast, the eastern coastline is lush and well watered, a stranger to frost. The southern coast, part of which is known as the Garden Route, is rather less tropical but also green, as is the Cape of Good Hope – the latter especially so in winter.
This south-western corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and hot, dry summers. Its most famous climatic characteristic is its wind, which blows intermittently virtually all year round, either from the south-east or the north-west.
The eastern section of the Karoo does not extend as far north as the western part, giving way to the flat landscape of the Free State, which though still semi-arid receives somewhat more rain.
North of the Vaal River, the Highveld is better watered, and saved by its altitude (Johannesburg lies at 1740m; its average annual rainfall is 760mm) from subtropical extremes of heat. Winters are cold, though snow is rare.
Further north and to the east, especially where a drop in altitude beyond the escarpment gives the Lowveld its name, temperatures rise: the Tropic of Capricorn slices through the extreme north. This is also where one finds the typical South African ‘Bushveld,’ famed for its wildlife.
Those looking for an opportunity to ski in winter head for the high Drakensberg mountains that form South Africa’s eastern escarpment, but the coldest place in the country is Sutherland in the barren Roggeveld Mountains, with midwinter temperatures as low as -15ºC.
The deep interior provides the hottest temperatures: in 1948 the mercury hit 51.7ºC in the Northern Cape Kalahari near Upington.
Oceans and Rivers
By far South Africa’s biggest neighbour is the ocean – or two oceans, which meet at the southwestern corner. Its territory includes Marion and Prince Edward Islands, nearly 2000km from Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean.
The cold Benguela current sweeps up from the Antarctic along the Atlantic coast, laden with plankton and providing rich fishing grounds. The east coast has the north-to-south Mozambique/Agulhas current to thank for its warm waters. These two currents have a major effect on the country’s climate, the ready evaporation of the eastern seas providing generous rainfall while the Benguela current retains its moisture to cause desert conditions in the west.
Several small rivers run into the sea along the coastline, but none are navigable and none provide useful natural harbours. The coastline itself, being fairly smooth, provides only one good natural harbour, at Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town. A lack of fresh water prevented major development here. Nevertheless, busy harbours exist at Richards Bay and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, East London and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and Mossel Bay and Cape Town in the Western Cape. An additional commercial port, the Port of Ngqura, is being developed off the coast from Port Elizabeth.
There are only two major rivers in South Africa: the Limpopo, a stretch of which is shared with Zimbabwe, and the Orange (with its tributary, the Vaal) which runs with a variable flow across the central landscape from east to west, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at the Namibian border.
In so dry a country, dams and irrigation are extremely important: the largest dam is the Gariep on the Orange River.
Best known South African beasts are the mammals, and the best known of these are the famous Big Five: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. There will be opportunities to see these animals on all our South African tours.
South Africa’s bushveld and savannah regions are still home to large numbers of the mammals universally associated with Africa. The Kruger National Park alone has well over 10,000 elephants and 20,000 buffalo – in 1920 there were an estimated 120 elephants left in the whole of South Africa!
The white rhino has also been brought back from the brink of extinction and now flourishes both in the Kruger National Park and the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Attention now is on protecting the black rhino. Both these parks are home to all of the Big Five.
Aside from occupying the top rung of the predation ladder, the lion also tops the glamour stakes. Sadly, it does have one formidable enemy in humankind, which has expelled it from most of the country so that it now remains almost exclusively in conservation areas. The beautiful leopard survives in a larger area, including much of the southern Cape and far north of the country, although numbers are small in some places.
The cheetah population is comparatively small and confined mostly to the far north (including the Kruger National Park), the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape, and reserves in KwaZulu-Natal and North West province.
Lesser Known Wildlife
Other quintessentially African large animals are the hippo, giraffe, kudu, wildebeest (the famous gnu) and zebra, all frequently seen in South Africa’s conservation areas.
Heightened awareness, however, has created an increased appreciation of lesser known animals. A sighting of the rare tsessebe (a relative of the wildebeest) may cause as much excitement as the sight of a pride of lion. And while one can hardly miss a nearby elephant, spotting the shy little forest-dwelling suni (Livingstone’s antelope) is cause for self-congratulation.
Other Mammal Species
With well over 200 species, a short survey of South Africa’s indigenous mammals is a contradiction in terms. A few examples will help to indicate the range.
In terms of appeal, primates rate highly. In South Africa they include the nocturnal bushbabies, vervet and samango monkeys, and chacma baboons, which – encouraged by irresponsible feeding and under pressure through loss of habitat – have become unpopular as raiders of homes on the Cape Peninsula.
Dassies (hyraxes, residents of rocky habitats) and meerkats (suricates, familiar from their alert upright stance) have tremendous charm, although the dassie can be an agricultural problem. The secretive nocturnal aardvark (which eats ants and is the only member of the order Tubulidentata) and the aardwolf (which eats termites and is related to the hyaena) are two more appealing creatures, and both are found over virtually the whole country.
One mammal whose charm is recently acquired is the wild dog or Cape hunting dog, one of Africa’s most endangered mammals. Once erroneously reviled as indiscriminate killers but now appreciated both for their ecological value and their remarkably caring family behaviour, wild dog packs require vast territories. They are found in small numbers in the Kruger National Park and environs, northern KwaZulu-Natal (including the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park), the Kalahari, and the Madikwe reserve in North West province.
More common canine carnivores are the hyaena, jackal and bat-eared fox. Feline carnivores – besides the big cats mentioned above – include the caracal with its characteristic tufted ears, the African wild cat and the rare black-footed cat. Other flesh eaters include the civet, genet and several kinds of mongoose.
The plant eaters are well represented by various antelope, from the little duiker to the large kudu and superbly handsome sable antelope, which is found only in the most northerly regions.
Marine Mammals and Fish
Of the eight whale species found in South African waters, the most frequently seen by humans is the southern right whale. This imposing creature comes into coastal bays to calve, allowing for superb land-based viewing.
The southern right whale represents one of conservation’s success stories. Once considered the “right” whale to hunt, its population became so depleted that it was designated a protected species.
South Africa’s seas are rich in fish species. Perhaps the most famous of these being the great white shark, but this is only one of more than 2000 species, comprising 16 per cent of the world’s total. Various line fish, rock lobster and abalone are of particular interest to gourmets, while pelagic fish (sardines and pilchards) and hake have large-scale commercial value.
The crocodile still rules some stretches of river and estuary, lakes and pools, exacting an occasional toll in human life. Other aquatic reptiles of note are the sea-roaming loggerhead and leatherback turtles, the focus of a major community conservation effort at their nesting grounds on the northern KwaZulu-Natal shoreline.
South Africa’s land reptiles include rare tortoises and the fascinating chameleon. There are well over 100 species of snake. While about half of them, including the python, are non-venomous, others – such as the puff adder, green and black mamba, boomslang and rinkhals – are decidedly so.
The country’s comparative dryness accounts for its fairly low amphibian count – 84 species. To make up for that, however, South Africa boasts over 77,000 species of invertebrates.
Birders from around the world visit South Africa to experience the country’s great variety, including migrants, and endemics (those birds found only in South Africa).
Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725 are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near-endemic.
Apart from the resident birds, South Africa hosts a number of intra-African migrants such as cuckoos and kingfishers, as well as birds from the Arctic, Europe, Central Asia, China and Antarctica during the year.
South Africa’s birdlife ranges from the ostrich – farmed in the Oudtshoorn district of the Western Cape, but seen in the wild mostly in the north of the country – through such striking species as the hornbills to the ubiquitous LBJs (“Little Brown Jobs”).
Among the most spectacular birds of South Africa are the cranes, most easily spotted in wetlands. The beautiful blue crane is South Africa’s national bird, while the crowned crane is probably the flashiest of the three with its unmistakable prominent crest.
Among its larger bird species, South Africa also has several eagles and vultures. Among its most colourful are kingfishers, bee-eaters, sunbirds, the exquisite lilac-breasted roller, and the Knysna and purple-crested louries.
Some 50 million South Africans live in a country of 1,219,090 square kilometres (twice the size of Texas). Racially, the South African population is 79 per cent black, nine per cent white, nine per cent ‘coloured’ and three per cent Asian.
By far the major part of the population classified itself as African or black, but it is not culturally or linguistically homogeneous. Major ethnic groups include the Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho (South Sotho), Bapedi (North Sotho), Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi and Ndebele, all of which speak ‘Bantu’ languages.
Private medical facilities are of a high, ‘first-world’ standard in Major towns, but lacking in more rural areas. The areas through which we are travelling are well served and so we will not be carrying a medic as we do on some Asian routes.
You must have appropriate travel insurance to undertake any tour.
Most of South Africa is free from malaria, but there are some incidences in the Kruger National Park area. Please consult your physician, or travel clinic, about malaria and other medical risks.
Tap water is safe to drink and food hygiene comparable with Europe.
South Africa has a high incidence of AIDS, but this can be avoided by not shagging people.
Politics & History
South Africa’s human, or hominid, history is among the oldest in the world – dating back some 3 million years. All a bit much to deal with here, though if your tour includes Mossel Bay, you can visit Pinnacle Caves, where modern behaviour is said to have started 170,000 years ago.
Fast-forward to 1652 and the arrival of a Dutch settlement, a provisioning post for the Dutch East India Company at the Cape of Good Hope. The first European to have set foot in South Africa may have been Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, but Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck, in setting up the provisioning port that was to become Cape Town, began the process of colonization – a process that led to countless wars and political woes that resonate to this day.
Ten years after the founding of the colony, there were 250 ‘whites’ living in Cape Town and by the early 1700s, the numbers had swelled to the point that independent farmers (Boers) started pushing out to the north and east, becoming ‘Trekboers’ in the process. Although a relatively peaceful expansion at first, mutual trading with the indigenous peoples soon turned to conflict over issues such as cattle-theft and the ownership of natural resources.
The Trekboers gained ground steadily as the local Khoisan tribespeople succumbed to superior technology and foreign diseases borne by the Boers and their slaves.
In 1765, the British took over the administration of The Cape from the Dutch, due to political shifts in Europe. It was returned to the Dutch in 1802, but was again under British control following their defeat of Napoleon (to whom the Dutch had allied themselves) in 1806.
As the settlement at The Cape began to grow in the 18th Century, the process of expansion continued and new lands were sought out to the east, mainly along the coastline, which brought the settlers into conflict with the nomadic Xhosa herders and triggered the Cape Frontier Wars. In 1820 around 5000 British settlers had been introduced to the eastern frontier in order to provide a buffer against the Xhosa people. The Xhosa fought fiercely, but by 1860 their defiance was all but over.
Meanwhile (following the British ban on slavery in 1834) around 12,000 disgruntled Afrikaners looking for independence began a further emigration to the north and east in what became known as ‘The Great Trek’. Many looked to settle on the fertile plains of what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal, where they came into conflict with the Zulus. The Zulus had grown increasingly strong in the early 1800s as King Shaka expanded his martial control of the area. When the first Trekkers arrived in Zulu territory and attempted to bargain for land, they were killed by Shaka’s successor, Dingane.
Undeterred, the Boers fought to remain in Natal and achieved a notable victory over the Zulu at The Battle of Blood River. Boers began to settle in Natal to the point that the British, worried about the influence they might exert back in the Cape, annexed Natal, where they had already established a small colony at what was to become Durban.
Around the same time, those Boers who had pushed into the central north of South Africa declared themselves independent, forming the Republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (or Transval). Only a fraction of South Africa now remained in Native hands, the largest group being the Zulus, who still held on to northern Natal.
Also held by black, Bantu-speaking people was what is now Lesotho, annexed by Britain on the request of King Moshoeshoe. Known at the time as Basotholand, this nation, now perhaps the best motorcycling country on our planet, is entirely land-locked by South Africa and has never been a part of it.
Even the mighty Zulu Nation was eventually to be defeated, but not without making its mark on the British consciousness. The British authorities in Natal put ever more pressure on the Zulus, led by King Cetshwayo, until conflict became inevitable. The Zulu wars began with the British forces suffering an humiliating defeat at Isandhlwana in 1879. Some British honour was restored shortly afterwards at Rorke’s Drift (which we visit on the Northern South Africa Tour) and the Zulu power-base was destroyed within a year. Zululand was incorporated into Natal in 1897.
Britain next set its sights on control of the Boer-held Transval, annexing it in 1877, only to be ousted by rebellion. Granted limited independence in 1881, full autonomy was bestowed in 1884, with staunch pro-Afrikaner Paul Kruger as its President. The Transval was of no great political interest to the British Empire until, two years after independence, large gold reserves were identified. With the finds came prospectors – mainly British – who Kruger saw as politically dangerous, as if they qualified to vote, they could threaten Boer independence. Thus, a number of regulations were set up to prevent these ‘uitlanders’ (‘foreigners’) from voting.
Using this discrimination as a reason, or an excuse, October 1899 saw half-a-million Imperial troops take on 65,000 Boers, with many black soldiers bolstering the ranks on both sides. The British were to suffer many humiliating blows at the hands of the hard-fighting Boers. Eventually, however, the sheer scale of British resources, and their brutal, scorched earth tactics overcame the Afrikaners. In order to prevent the Boer guerilla army having any shelter, their families and supporters were imprisoned in concentration camps. Some 26,000 women and children, plus 14,000 blacks and ‘coloureds,’ perished in the primitive conditions.
The Boer War ended in 1902.
The Imperial Phase
If the black population of South Africa saw the British victory over the severely racist Afrikaners as a reason for hope, they were to be sorely disappointed. The treaties by which the war had ended gave a measure of autonomy to each of the four colonies that comprised the country – and the ex-Boer states would appoint their blacks with no democratic franchise. By 1910 a central government, under the Union of South Africa banner, was formed. The South African Party (SAP) held power, under the leadership of staunch Boer General Louis Botha.
In order to prevent any threat to white supremacy, the SAP introduced laws which reserved all skilled work for whites, black-only poll taxes, pass cards and the 1913 Land Act, which reserved ownership of 90 per cent of the country’s land for the tiny white minority. The African National Congress (ANC), which had come into being in 1912, sent delegations to London to oppose the Boer laws, but to no avail. Early ANC protests ended with participants beaten and imprisoned.
Over the following two decades consecutive governments continued to undermine democratic rights. In 1934, South Africa was granted independence from Britain and continued along its segregationist path.
In 1944 the ANC Youth League was formed, with AM Lembede as its president and Nelson Mandela as secretary. Post-war South Africa was undergoing a transition, with fast-expanding industries requiring workers and while skilled jobs were still reserved for whites, many blacks moved into urban areas, becoming more defiant of the ruling class.
In 1948 the Nationalist Party came to power, entrenching Apartheid as a matter of national policy and political ideology. Throughout the 1950s, more draconian laws were passed, further separating people along racial lines. The Group Areas Act put further restrictions on the ownership of land; the Population Registration Act meant everyone was categorised into a set racial group and status; the Separate Amenities Act banned racial mixing on buses, in queues and just about everywhere else and the 1952 Pass Laws denied black freedom of movement within the country.
Protest began to gather momentum as did the underhand government methods to stifle it. When the ANC released a ‘Freedom Charter’ in 1955 at the Congress of the People in Soweto, reprisal followed. All 156 ANC leaders were arrested and charged with treason. It took a five-year trial for them to be acquitted and during their imprisonment all black representatives were removed from parliament and provincial councils.
The 1960s began bloodily for South Africa and the rights movement. An anti-pass laws protest in Sharpville, organized by the breakaway Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), was broken up by armed police with the killing of 69 unarmed protesters. The Sharpville Massacre was a decisive turning point. The government declared a state of emergency, the ANC and PAC were banned – and the struggle went underground, forming a militant wing, of which Mandela was a member. In 1962 Mandela received a three-year jail sentence for ‘incitement’ and two years later many of the ANC top brass, including Mandela, were sentenced to life for sabotage.
Despite the setback in leadership, dissent continued and escalated throughout the late 60s and early 70s. When, in 1976, police opened fire on youths protesting over being taught in Afrikaans, massive rioting ensued. In 1976, police killed Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in custody – and so it went on, a not-so-merry-go-round of repression and struggle under an ongoing state of emergency.
The violence was not exclusively between government and black factions, but often between the factions themselves. The Inkatha Party, led by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, fought many bloody battles with ANC supporters as the tribal-political power struggles intensified. South Africa was nearing ungovernability, sanctions and pressure from abroad, especially the USA with its huge black electorate was making legitimate statehood untenable. Civil war and the huge backlashes that would bring looked possible and something had to give.
In 1989, Prime Minister PW Botha entered into secret talks with Nelson Mandela, but catching wind of what was happening, Nationalist hard-liners pressured for his resignation. But his successor FW de Klerk kept the dialogue alive and by early 1990 De Klerk had not only lifted restrictions on opposition parties, but had released Mandela, who had served 27 years in prison.
Negotiations began on a new political freedom and two years later the white minority endorsed De Klerk’s libralisations by way of referendum. In 1993 plans for a Government of National Unity were set in place and an interim constitution agreed upon. Just a year later Mandela was sworn in as President, with De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as joint deputies. Apartheid was over, but challenges remained.
June 1999 saw South Africa’s second free election, again won by the ANC and leaving Thabo Mbeki as president. The ANC’s huge majority increased and a new party emerged in second place, the Democratic Party (now the Democratic Alliance) comprised of liberal elements of the Nationalist Party.
Mbeki went on to win the election in 2004, but was ousted three years later by Jacob Zuma. under a cloud of corruption allegations Zuma was recently replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa. The Democratic Alliance is still the official opposition.
South Africa remains strongly divided along racial lines and in most of the country there is scant social mixing between blacks and whites.
The near-unassailable power of the ANC has lead, many believe, to complacency, nepotism and corruption. While this would appear to be true to an extent, it is still something of a miracle that Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation appears relatively stable and that even after his death South Africans of all races largely rub along together peacefully.
There is no getting away from the fact that South Africa has a major crime problem, with horrifyingly high incidences of murder and rape. Lesser crimes are also common, including muggings and other forms of robbery.
Much of this crime is, however, localised in poorer urban areas and taking a few precautionary steps can mitigate risks while travelling. Moving in a group greatly reduces the chances of becoming a victim of crime and we will be avoiding high-risk areas while on tour.