Meditations on riding through the desert
The Karoo desert makes up a big chunk of central South Africa. It’s a magical and hostile place for the uninitiated, having been stuck in the Tankwa Karoo with a broken alternator before and adopted my an onion farmer.
Following some feelings of aimlessness at work, creeping existential dread, and difficulty peeling myself out of bed in the morning, I decided to face the Karoo again, this time crossing it to visit some family in Johannesburg.
My plan was to cross the 2,000km between Cape Town and Johannesburg alone in 4 days, taking back roads (which tended to be gravel) and stopping in remote and scenic spots to overnight.
Instead of the usual “kick the tyres and make sure the fuel light isn’t on” before setting off, this time I did a proper checkup on my bike (a Royal Enfield Classic 500), lubed the chain, as well as equipped myself with the following:
- A spare clutch cable
- Fresh spark plugs
- Q20 (kinda like WD40)
- A pressure gauge
- A water bottle
I woke up early on the Monday, had a quick coffee with my girlfriend (who would later meet me in Johannesburg), and set off. The initial stretch getting out of the city was quite mediocre as it was rush hour and people hadn’t had their coffee yet (and mine was only just setting in). However by the time I had reached the majestic and craggy Paarl mountains my grim expression turned into a smile and the excitement set in. The road opened up and I got stuck in.
The mountain passes leaving the Cape are beautiful, ringed by vineyards with the coast on the horizon. The first petrol station I stopped at confronted me with my first issue. One of my saddle bag straps had broken and my saddle bag had been sitting on my exhaust pipe for the past 100km or so. This resulted in one of my pairs of shoes melting into the bag’s lining.
The exhaust pipe was also smoking from the burnt plastic worrying the friendly petrol attendant. After assuring him everything was fine, tying a loop in my saddle bag and reattaching it, I inhaled another cheeky coffee from the station cafe and hit the road again.
The next leg of the ride settled me into a contemplative and meditative state. There’s something refreshing about a bike ride which keeps you present and distraction free. I felt connected to myself and the road. My mind was gently focussed and I was feeling fresh.
When I reached Laingsburg for lunch 2 Pretorians on their way home from vacation came over to me and gave me a box of lens wipes after watching me struggle to clean bugs off of my visor. We chatted for a bit, said our farewells, and headed into the second half of the ride.
The last stretch for the day was down a gravel road between Leeu Gakama and Prince Albert. My bike doesn’t have off-road tyres, and combined with full saddle bags, I took it easy. I arrived at a remote house, left unlocked for me, and far away from any people. I must have been the only sapient creature for 30km in every direction. One issue is that there was no place for me to get dinner, so after I’d unloaded my stuff in the delightful kraal I took a 45 minute off-road ride to Prince Albert down a gorgeous desert road.
It was on the way back down that where in the distance I saw 4 shapes on the road. When I reached them they turned out to be bat-eared foxes, and a little spooked, ran alongside me for a good 30 seconds. It’s times like this that I wished I’d brought a helmet cam as I felt like a badass Disney princess.
Arriving back at the house I wrote for a bit, enjoyed the sunset, and showered the road off of me before getting into bed way too early.
I slept well that night, waking up to the silence only the middle of the desert can provide. There was a plunger and some coffee which I enjoyed as I watched the sun crest the horizon. I eagerly packed up bags, saddled my now very dusty bike, and set off.
The ride today was pretty cold and I felt it sink into my bones. The desert opened up in front of me as a mixture of tracks and open road. I relaxed into the experience and found myself contemplating life, my place in it, geopolitics, and the war in Ukraine. That was until breakfast.
Beaufort West didn’t have much in terms of a “good breakfast”. I had some hash-browns and toast. Breakfast of champions.
Richmond and Hanover were drive-by towns without much going for them. Passing through towns like this always leaves me questioning the purpose and history of these towns and the reasons people stay in them. I believe it’s both economic as well as a cultural expectation to stay and not venture out into the big bad world. I may be wrong.
On the side of the road there was a car stopped with the reflective triangle out. I decided to earn some desert karma and pulled over to help them. It was a man with a flat tyre and an incorrectly sized tyre iron. He’d been waiting an hour and a half for someone to stop and help him, and was grateful but sceptical that I could be of assistance. I surprised him by pulling out my rusty Royal Enfield toolkit (which comes with the bike and sits in a side panel by the fuses). I gerry-rigged a solution by combining my spark plug tool (which happened to fit his wheel nuts), a large allen key, and another unnamed tool fitted over the allen key for leverage. Within 20 minutes we had him back on the road and he thanked me and called me “motorcycle man” as I rode off. It felt good.
It was sad to hear that no-one had stopped to help him. This was a busy-ish road where any number of them could have at least tried to give him assistance. Helping people is fulfilling in its own right, whether you believe in karma or not. It just feels good.
It was around then that my speedo cable snapped and my odometer and speedometer stopped working. It wasn’t so bad as it was difficult to speed on my bike anyway (it being a single cylinder modern classic), and not having the distance captured by the odometer wasn’t a show stopper either.
That night was spent on the Orange River, just down from the Groot Gariep Dam, the biggest dam in South Africa. It was a gorgeous place to spend the evening, on the banks enjoying dinner as the sunset painted the wide river it’s namesake. I relished the sight tiredly and slipped into bed early again with the intention of spending some time exploring the dam in the morning.
I awoke to thick mists coming off of the river. I couldn’t see 2 meters ahead of me as I sipped on my Ricoffy on the banks. It cleared up pretty fast, though, and I set off to the Gariep. Big engineering projects like this always spark my wonder. How did we build something so BIG? The dam wall was a majestic sight with the overflow crashing far below and creating clouds.
I circled the dam wall and headed back into the Gariep village as my tyres needed pumped. I’d pumped them earlier at this station, although the gauge was not working and had left my tyres feeling flatter than before. I tried pumping them again as the petrol attendant watched me. It was only after he’d watched me drain all the pressure out of my tyres that he told me the pump was faulty and that I couldn’t pump my tyres here. Down under 1 bar and quite put out by the interaction, I slowly road to a tractor workshop I’d past 6km back where a friendly mechanic let me use his compressor.
To make up some time I hit the highway but was deterred by the number of trucks and pulled onto some unnamed dirt track which pointed in vaguely the right direction. It ran along sunflower fields in full bloom with muddy bits where I almost took a tumble several times as my road tyres refused to find purchase on the slippery ground. I made 3 small tortoise friends on this road. One which managed to pee on my hand, right between the fingers where my gloves aren't water resistant. Touché mon amie. I managed to follow this road all the way into Bloemfontein.
The last leg on the trip was difficult as the saddle soreness was starting to kick in and I stopped every now and again to stretch my achy back. The sky, which had looked like a bunch of cotton balls accidentally spilled on the troposphere, now looked like a dark and angry mass of thunderclouds.
I took another detour through Virginia (a delightful old-school town) on my way to my night’s stop in Ventersburg. I should have done my research on this town as it was a fairly dingy truck stop town without much in the way of beauty or good places to eat. The B&B owner was a kind old Afrikaans man who complimented my heavily accented Afrikaans and pointed me in the direction of the local Steers. I was spent after 7 hours in the saddle and once I’d finished my dinner I watched a movie on my laptop from bed and passed out.
The final day of the trip was fairly uneventful. The Freestate highways were smooth and double-laned and I made good time.
I did run through a swarm of locusts which had me dodging about like Agent Smith in the Matrix, which was quite exciting. I also started to spy other people out on two wheels, nodding or waving at one-another. A little community of strangers.
On reflection, the beautiful thing about riding a motorcycle is that you have no choice but to be present wherever you are. To BE there. Not seeing the world through a frame. Not zoning out listening to a podcast, but to see the horizon change with awareness, to know that the asphalt is flying by right beneath your boots, and to feel your existence.
I stopped for a classic breakfast at Wimpy in Kroonstat and managed to make it into Joburg South by midday. The old Joburg South is quite interesting to ride through. The ageing infrastructure is neat and covered in street art. It smells like a city but is vibrant in a way that only Joburg is. I felt like I’d made it home. I had lunch with my brother.
Would I do this trip again? Absolutely. It was a long overdue break from work and the every-day routine of home life. It was time spent alone but not lonely. It was, in hindsight, necessary.
Next time I’ll be sure to spread it out even more. 7 hours in a saddle every day gets quite uncomfortable. I’ll also need to get some off-road tyres for my bike. And definitely not stay in Ventersburg.