Category Archives: South Africa

Enchanting Places: Lesotho and South Africa

A Thirteen Minute Readimage

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” ~ Danny Kaye, Actor

On the most peaceful of nights the sky and earth seem like they could shatter with the drop of a pin. In the isolated sections, devoid of human habitation are the most vulnerable and enchanting areas to roam. They bring forth feelings of explorations and wonder. We are able to gleam for a moment how explorers of old may have felt looking on rugged new lands. The thrill of the unknown and pulse of the ground give us a unique feeling of belonging. It is as if we are returning to a place long forgotten, though strangely familiar. Collecting pieces of memories, we never knew existed.

Sometimes as I roll through these desolate and forgotten landscapes I feel like I have been there before. The flicker of the sun, howl of the wind and bite of the cold seem all too familiar. I hear a soft tune playing as I roll in quiet isolation through these places. I fear no evil and trust the curve of the road. These places that look like daunting masses of earth are now where I feel most at home, most alive. Time clicks on seamlessly as the Earth groans in old age under my tires. I gaze forward and see the way without the saturation or clutter.
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“Age is getting to know all the ways the world turns, so that if you cannot turn the world the way you want, you can at least, get out of the way so you won’t get run over.” ~ Miriam Makeba, South African Singer

I had a few days off before I got back on my bike in Johannesburg. Staying with a delightful couple and their two dogs, I prepared my route through to Cape Town. I elected to take the decidedly more scenic route to the happiness of my camera and the sadness of my legs. Scenic means hills. I left Johannesburg with my host Dewald and his friend at a soul crushing 4:30am. This is the typical time of their Sunday morning ride. It was hard shaking myself out of bed, but I did appreciate the quiet of the city and was far out of town before the sun even came up. I thought I would make this type of thing a regular part of my ride, until no one make me do it. My routine is fairly regimented, but allows me to sleep until the sun is coming up at least.

I had decided to make my way towards a small country within South Africa called Lesotho. From everything I had read about the remote and natural splendor of Lesotho, it was something I surely could not miss. It also set me up to experience the Drakensburg and Garden Route of South Africa. The route there was met with very long, somewhat monotonous and slow hills of the Free State. There was no shoulder typically and I drove off the road repeated for fear of crazy drivers. As I approached Lesotho the landscape began to change. One farmer I met told me about a huge front put up in the area during the Boer War, that was now his farmland, serving as a main passage to the north in those days. In the border town of Fouriesburg I stayed in a very old guesthouse after a few days of camping and prepared to enter Lesotho.

“If the palm of the hand itches it signifies the coming of great luck.” ~ Lesotho Proverb

Riding into Lesotho was like returning to mountainous and wild Africa. It reminded me of parts of Ethiopia with a touch of Kyrgyzstan to the east. The landscape stretches like a vast carpet, mostly devoid of trees and full of wind. Known as the ‘Kingdom in the Sky’. The name does not disappoint, as steep inclines pushed me and my heavy bike to the limit. I couldn’t help but smile though as I pedaled on through the tiny communities. People were generally very friendly and some kids shouted at me for sweets. I yelled back, ‘Sweets!’ like an insane peraon and usually just left us both confused. Typically, I was alone though on mountain roads that stretched forever as I huffed up massive passes. Just when you think you have reached the top, there is another curve and set of switchbacks. The smile on my face has never been bigger though as I plunged down those large inclines.

I had heard of a guesthouse called St. James Lodge on the other side of the valley on my second day in Lesotho and made a break for it. When I arrive to the supposed location, I saw the sign to the road down a massive hill and back up on the other side. It was a rocky descent but I made it and had the whole place to myself. The quiet serenity of the nature there was deafening as I ate my regular dinner by a kerosene lamp. Stunning sunsets and morning views in the middle of a beautiful landscape. The following day I hitched my way back to the main road in a truck, riding it like a skateboard to the top, not needing to put myself through that madness again. Later that day I lost a dear friend. My kickstand, which had been with me since the start of my journey in China, snapped under the weight of my bike. I am still looking for an adequate replacement for that miraculous eight dollar stand. The following night I slept at a place called Afriski. Basically a one run ski resort in the middle of Lesotho. Who knew that would exist? It was an icy cold night there in the mountains, but the chalet was warm and inviting. The following day brought more climbs as I made my way towards Sani Pass. (Read a little extra about Lesotho history RIGHT HERE)

At times I questioned my logic while in Lesotho. Why did I decide to put myself through this? Then another pass or valley would present itself and it all made sense. It was easily one of the most rewarding and beautiful parts I have seen in Africa and top five of my trip. When I finally made it to Sani Pass, some very cold weather rolled in and it even snowed up at the border. This pass is also known as the home of the highest pub in Africa. An obscure tourist destination of sorts where people come to sign the wall and take silly photos. I was stranded up there for the night and slept by the fire of the nearby lodge. In the morning weather still hadn’t improved and I was fed up with it all by then. I punched out of Lesotho and grabbed the next 4×4 truck down the pass while it poured freezing rain.

On the other side of the pass I found myself in a very beautiful part of South Africa, the Drakensburg. Though weather was variable, the views were very beautiful as I made my way down to the coast. On one occasion mid-day for no reason at all I broke out crying while I was riding. This was the first time something like this had happened. I couldn’t stop and I didn’t care who saw me. Maybe it was exhaustion, recent personal events or simply the fact I knew I was now going to make it to the end of Africa, I am still not sure. The hard part was over for now, but it may have been a realization of how far I still had to go. It wasn’t for happiness or sadness. Tears of confusion and doubt.

Eventually finding my way down to East London, I began my final route towards Cape Town. I put in some long days along the way and had one lift from a friendly man named Linley, when the road became very busy and dangerous. He welcomed me to camp at his house in Port Elizabeth. He had a lovely family who welcomed me in, along with 3 huge German shepherds, two beautiful owls and some other creatures. It was a very nice experience and we took a drive out the road the following day down the scenic route, where I then continued onto Jeffrey’s Bay, one of the surfing capitals of the world. It was a holiday on this occasion called Heritage Day, which is typically celebrated as South Africa’s ‘Braai Day’. (Read about Braai Day HERE). Basically a day off where people get together with family and friends to barbecue the South African way. It was during the beginning days of the Rugby World Cup, so excitement was high around the country.

The road along the Garden Route never cease to amaze me as I made my way down to Mossel Bay. Places such a Wilderness, Plettenberg Bay and Knysna punctuate the ever-changing and stunning coast. The route is famous for a reason and well suited to tourists. I met interesting people each day and had many wonderful conversations. A friend of the family who I stayed with in Port Elozabeth even set me up with my own chalet in their friends water park ‘Adventureland’. Another fantastic of firsts as I joined the terrific Redman family with a fun evening of chatting and food. Hsopitality passed forward from people I had only just met days before. Amazing to say the least.

A few days later I was due to meet my friend from South Korea in Mossel Bay, Dene, who I mentioned in my previous post. She decided I had done enough biking and came to pick me up. I didn’t argue as I was running short on time and had put down a lot of hard kilometres lately. People do not understand how amazing it is to see a familiar face on a trip like this. To have familiar discussions and talk about old times. It had been many years since I saw her and now she had a beautiful daughter and caring husband named Jaco. It is amazing where the people you meet end up, as we chatted about times we had years ago in Korea. When I rolled up on my bike she looked at me and asked, ‘Mark, what have you been doing with yourself?’ Laughing together at my bicycle and the bags I dragged along with me.

I had a very relaxing few days at their home situated nearby to their camping and chalets called Kam’bati River Resort. If you are ever in the area of Swellendam, please check out the wonderful oasis that is Kambati by CLICKING HERE. We had lots of delicious Braai and I attended a birthday party of Jaco’s brother Franz. Like many people in the area, he was a farmer. I found it very interesting that he had even made a special holiday to Canada to look at the ways in which we farm in order to improve his own craft. I found it to be humbling and think any person who is passionate about their work would benefit from a similar experience. It makes you understand better what you have and look at alternative methods for personal growth. Travel truly is one of the greatest educators. I also learned that day I would like my own indoor Braai. It simply makes sense.

By this point my time left in South Africa was now limited. I had booked the cheapest flight I could find to South America some weeks back in calculation of my arrival in Cape Town. However, at the end of Africa I was more keen on enjoying my time with kind people I knew, rather than rushing around to cycle every bit of the way. Dene and Jaco drove me to the next town and set me up with the kindest of hearts in a guesthouse for the night. It was a bit of a teary goodbye and the following day I made it to Cape Town over the final pass where I stayed with Dene’s mother Marina. We had some awesome chats about travel and the world as she graciously gave up her weekend to show me the main pieces of Cape Town. It truly is a stunning city and surrounding region. An excellent way to end Africa. Together we even explored a few areas new to her. I eventually made it down to the touristic Cape of Good Hope and took the important picture at the bottom of Africa. It was somewhat anti-climatic as I forced my way in front of people on tour buses jockeying for position in front of the sign.

“Live your dreams, not your fears!” ~ Albina Hume, Author

At the end of Africa I did feel a certain sense of pride. I remember shaking like a leaf as I stood at the top of a very daunting continent. I looked down at maps and thought it was going to be a miracle if I made it to the bottom. What I found instead was a place full of wonderful and warm people, living amid beautifully unique landscapes. The Africa I had imagined in my mind was nothing like the Africa I came to know. It surprised me, frustrated me at times, but most importantly impressed the life out of me. The question I was asked more often than not about riding down Africa was, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ The answer was always ‘no’. The only time I ever felt uneasy was worrying about the traffic that carelessly blew by me. It never had anything to do with people or threats towards my safety. Sure I had to be on my toes, like anywhere, but I was never the target of anything less than a welcome visitor. What you will realize if you put yourself out there, smile a bit and have an open mind, people will be kind. People are inherently good and they can see that in your eyes from the moment you meet them. Share the good side of your inner human and people will respond positively. That’s all for now. I have a new continent and journey to tackle.
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*A big thank you to a pile of recent donations which have brought us to within $1,000 of our goal for the new schoolhouse in Esinoni, Kenya. Truly awesome and inspiring! We are on the home stretch for the kids in Kenya. Please CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

***On a very sad note, I found out yesterday that my dear grandma, Jean Quattrocchi, passed away surrounded by family and thoughts of love. She was one of the most influential people in my life and the cornerstone of our family. She will be dearly missed by many, as her heart and soul touched them throughout their lives. She was always supportive in helping us reach our goals in life and there to listen. She appreciated the beauty of life around her and loved her family dearly. It is with a heavy heart we all say goodbye from near and far to a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and friend. Your story does not stop here Grandma. With all of our love, we miss you. Never will we forget you.

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The Thunder Behind My Eye: Racing Into South Africa

An Eleven Minute Readimage

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” ~ Nelson Mandela, Freedom Fighter/Politician

There comes a time when we must make decisions in our lives. Crossroads present themselves in a sea of uncertainty. Sometimes decisions are quick and without thought. Others linger for weeks and plague mental patterns day and night. If we value change or growth, these moments come with some frequency. These decisions mould us, shape our present reality and the roads which bring us to the next junction. We are never the same person twice. The goals which we once had years, months and even weeks back, may seem like frivolous bothers in the present. They look like minor deviations from the whirlwind of our daily lives. However, everything culminates during daily micro-decisions to bring us to new avenues of opportunity.

Letting worry take over and cloud your modern reality is a needless distraction to the bigger picture. I’m sure we would find it hard to look back and remember with fondness on our most recent worries. It is much easier and positive to look back on moments of nostalgia, even if they weren’t that great at the time. On a bicycle journey, there is a surplus of time to think. I’ve put in a great deal of time contemplating and arrived at a few conclusions. They are apparent in my present state. If you want something bad enough, you’ll chase after it, I know I have. The end is not reached with the rabbit, but only leads to another series of holes. Enjoy the hunt.

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“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that’s the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much.” ~ Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

It was an early morning entrance to Botswana. Another country with new sets of rules and geography. For the first time in months it was flat. I entered from the Plum Tree border station and rode on fumes to Francistown. Relaxing in the shade I made a forward plan towards South Africa. With the wide shoulder and a relatively uninteresting section of road ahead, I decided to make my break. Putting in my longest day in Africa of 176 kilometres from Francistown to Palapye I arrived after dark. Setting up my tent on some crusty ground, I cooked some tasteless pasta and it was lights out. The next day, it was up early again as I skidded off towards the South African border. There was no service stations until I reached the border over a hundred kilometres away. Drinking orange Fanta out of coolers from the side of the road, I spent my last bit of money on a fly covered bun with warm cream inside.

If you are wondering, why all the hurry? It was because I was running behind schedule for an important meeting on the horizon. My girlfriend and family were coming to visit. They were due to arrive in Johannesburg in just a matter of days. Every moment counted to get me there on time. I returned the bottle of Fanta and slugged my way to the border. Crossing into South Africa felt like I was returning to civilization. There were functioning stores in each town with a wide selection foods and affordable delights. South Africa is the most developed country, given most respects, in Africa. I quickly felt at home and the welcoming nature of the people. I saw the first McDonalds since Egypt and to say I didn’t order up the ubiquitous ‘Big Mac’ meal would be a lie. Sometimes on trips like this, that little bit of familiarity can go a long way to make you feel at ease. When everything is always new and unknown, those little pieces of the known go a long way.

Rolling into Lephalale, I was searching for a local campsite when a man almost backed his truck into me. After he saw me and we chatted a moment, he asked where I was headed. I explained my plan of action and he invited me to stay in one of his guesthouses for free. It ended up being my own apartment with hot water, kitchen and laundry. Cycling dreams are made of this magic. My new friend, Victor, introduced me to the welcoming nature of South African people. After I was rested up he invited me for a breakfast before I was off riding again. We had an instant connection and some inspiring chats. The local newspaper showed up and an impromptu interview took place. They sent me sailing with a happy first impression and a bag full of food. That night I slept on the soft green grass of the local golf course amid warthogs and skittish little monkeys.

“Travel is more than a seeing of sights. It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” ~ Miriam Beard, Author

On route to Johannesburg a friend I had met in South Korea named Dene, had arranged for family members of her husbands to host me. They picked me up and took me off to their farm. Jaco and Jessie gave me the first taste of true South African ‘Braai’. You can read more on the process and style HERE. It is basically barbecue, but treated with a sport like seriousness. They even have a ‘Braai Day’, which I will get into on a following post. In any case, my first experience was a beautiful appreciation for food, as I slowly began to put on weight. One of the most amazing things they did for me while I stayed with them was returning my shoes, that were nearly headed for the garbage bin, looking brand new. At this point I only had one day to make it to the airport in time to meet my girlfriend. Jessie offered to take me most of the way into Johannesburg. I left feeling like I was part of the family and a warm energy bubbled inside. I made it to the airport with 20 minutes to spare. Cutting it close to say the least. I rubbed my burley face wishing I had time to shave.

Seeing a familiar person on a trip such as this can do more than you know. I didn’t need to introduce myself or be that guy on the bike. I was simply able to be me. With my family and girlfriend, Eliza, it was just like old times, only we were in South Africa. After a day of rest we went out on safari. Something I had only done by the seat of my bike all through Africa. Now I was the person that rolled past people in the big vehicle as hundreds of white kneed tourists had done to me throughout Africa. Only this safari was more than about just seeing herds of zebras and spotting lions. All down Africa I had thought about it carefully. On the top of a mountain just after sunrise I asked the love of my life to marry me. Slipping the ring onto her smooth trembling finger I felt all the world coming together. Looking up to see the tears in her eyes what I saw was my soulmate. The woman I would spend the rest of my days with. I am not sure what I said as the morning sun swallowed us up on that rocky outcrop. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Without the careful planning and help of my parents I couldn’t have pulled off the proposal. I am so glad we were able to share in it together.

“You must regard this deviation from plan as part of the adventure that you sought when you decided to embark on it in the first place…Absence of certainty is its essence. People…who choose to shun the mundane must not only expect, but also enjoy and profit from surprises.” ~ Adam Yamey, Aliwal

After a few days of wonderful wildlife, relaxation and full stomachs, a tearful goodbye was on the horizon as I prepared to get back on the bike. I knew saying goodbye to my parents would be tough, but seeing my new fiancée off was going to be even more difficult. I wanted to quit. I said that I had come far enough. That the end of Africa was achievement enough. I had accomplished more than I ever thought possible. I should pack it all in and call it a day, when I reached the southern edge of Africa in Cape Town. Eliza said that there was no way I was quitting. As hard as that may have been for her to say, it wasn’t what I wanted hear, but what I needed. She could have been selfish and let me take the easy way out. I could have quit right there at the airport and boarded a plane anywhere else. But I returned to my bike knowing I wouldn’t see her until I reached the finish line back in Canada, thousands of kilometres away.

Knowing everything I already do about life on the road, it would have been the easy way out. Returning to a life of comfort with vegetables in the crisper and 600 TV channels, would be ideal for a time. But, that route would have haunted me in years to come. Like a puzzle missing the final piece, I would only see that hole. The rest of the picture would be forgotten. Eliza could see this. As much as she may have wanted me to quit, she supported my dream without a doubt. This is what every man wants. To feel the support and understanding of his mindless plight. To be there for him when the future he presents is a bit hazy. She looked into my eyes and beyond the shadowy thunder that is my mind, she saw something more. On first day I ever met Eliza, I told her that I would ride a bicycle (which I didn’t even own at the time) around the world. She never thought I was joking and she stuck by me through all of those distant nights. If I were to quit now, it would be breaking the very first promise ever I made to her. Now, that is something I could never live with.

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*The rest of the South Africa story will continue in the next post along with adventures through ruggedly beautiful Lesotho and eventually to the stunning coast of the Garden Route towards the end of Africa in Cape Town.

**Please continue to help support funding for the new schoolhouse in Esinoni, Kenya. We are less than $1,600 away from reaching our goal. Which is so amazing! Thank you for the surprise early donations from some of our supporting schools back in Eastern Ontario. You guys rock! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

***To follow along with daily photo updates from my phone through the South American section of the journey link to my Instagram by CLICKING HERE.

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