Learning curve: across SA on a Harley
By: Dave Abrahams
Each year Harley-Davidson Africa invites a few motoring journalists to attend Africa Bike Week in Margate on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast as their guests. It’s great fun - they fly you to Durban, followed by a two-hour ride in a shuttle bus to the mother of all biker parties, with demo bikes to ride in the lush countryside when the noise gets a bit much.
But I have to admit I feel a bit of a cheat watching the bikes roll into this normally sleepy resort town, carrying number plates from as far away as Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, their riders’ faces smug with the satisfaction of having travelled to a motorcycle gathering On Their Bikes.
So, at Africa Bike Week 2012, I tackled Harley-Davidson Africa’s genial press guy, Michael Carney, about the possibility of riding a Harley to the 2013 edition. No problem, he said, all the Cape-based demo bikes would have to be brought up by truck anyway, so he was quite happy to let me deliver one of them at my own expense.
The tool that Carney and I selected for this adventure was the 1690cc Street Glide, a less-complicated version of the range-topping Electra Glide Ultra Classic with no top box, a lower screen, only two speakers for the radio/CD player and standard rather than air suspension.
But it was also 45kg lighter than Milwaukee’s two-wheeled Winnebago, which would make it a little easier to handle on South Africa’s less travelled back roads. And that opened up a host of possibilities; this was my chance to tick off at least four of my bucket list of ‘roads I have to ride’.
The first was perhaps the least ambitious: to ride the celebrated R62 all the way to its end at De Rust. And even then I didn’t try to do it in one day; I took it easy through the winelands of the Western Cape to my lunch stop - the Country Pumpkin in Barrydale.
Then I picked up the pace a little across the southern plains to my overnight stop at the Best Little Guest House in Oudsthoorn, where I was welcomed by Denny and Edy Fricke.
Supper came courtesy of a fast-food franchise but when I got back to the guest house I discovered that my cellphone had been stolen out of its pouch on my belt - which would force an early start the next day so I could do a SIM swop in Beaufort West before too much damage was done.
I was up and ready to go by 6.30am, but the Frickes were ahead of me, ready with a full breakfast to kick-start my ride - and shortly before 8am I was refuelling the ‘Glide at the co-op in De Rust.
Then I turned North on the N12 towards Meiringspoort, a cleft in the Swartberg nearly 1000 metres deep, with 25 low-water bridges in less than 18km amid deep shadows and lush vegetation.
I’d been there before in a car, but never on a motorcycle or with time to spare. Stunned by the sheer majesty of the scenery, I stopped twice to take photographs and was struck by the condition of the road. Meiringspoort lies within the Swartberg National Park and the almost surgically clean road is maintained by the Parks Board to a standard that puts Sanral utterly to shame.
It is a deeply quiet and mystical place; half an hour just watching the river tumbling over the rocks below the White Horse Drift brought a calm to my soul that stayed with me for the rest of my journey.
TYPICAL KAROO ROAD
As you exit the foothill of the Swartberg the N12 becomes a typical Karoo road, dead straight through miles and miles of bloody Africa – and the bloody Africa grows about knee high. But the sheer vastness of the views and what it says about the people who live there exercise a fascination of their own.
Beaufort West was all that I had expected it to be - a dusty, bustling, noisy truck-stop, dedicated to siphoning as much money as possible out of the hauliers. But Marike at MTN was sympathetic and helpful, and soon I was breathing cooler air (mentally and physically) as I sped north on the N1.
The rest of that day was an endurance contest, as this country’s busiest road threw everything at me from 20-minute stop-go delays to eighteen-wheelers racing each other, side by side, straight at me.
Overtaking the trucks was even worse; in defiance of a Sanral ruling that they keep a mandatory 40-metre distance, up to half a dozen would form a slipstream train, less than three metres apart, thus saving up to 10 percent in fuel consumption - but it meant I had to run the big Harley flat out to get safely by.
A couple of times I saw 165km/h on the speedometer - 154 on the satnav - and I began to understand how so many head-on collisions happen on this road.
I was grateful to reach Colesberg, and the Toverberg guest house, where I was made welcome by well-known photographer Jurie Senekal who, when he heard where I was going, insisted on going through my next day’s route with me, offering expert and welcome advice on Free State roads.
In the end, however, I wimped out and followed the N1 up to Winburg (more roadworks) and then went east on the N5. An initial 40km of detours and delays soon became a relaxed cruise through rolling hills and sharp crags - totally unlike the traditional perception of the Free State as a featureless plain - to Bethlehem and the turn-off to Clarens and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, another road I had driven before in a car and vowed to return to on a motorcycle.
And it was worth it, as the natural splendour of the sandstone crags was matched by the splendour of the road, making the R712 from Clarens to Harrismith a biker’s paradise, no matter what you ride. Once again the road was immaculately maintained - maybe we should declare all South Africa’s major roads conservation areas and hand them over to the Parks Board to look after
My room at the Book Cottage Inn in Harrismith had its own little kitchenette, so I decided to save money by making sandwiches rather than eating take-aways. Problem was, that meant buying a box of teabags, a packet of sugar, bottle of milk, a loaf of bread, a tub of spread, a block of cheese and four slices of ham.
Four ham-and-cheese sandwiches cost me considerably more than a sit-down meal at a road-house would have – and I still had to make them myself!
Bad experiences on the N1 made me take the first turn-off from the N3 the next morning that said “Ladysmith” and that set the tone for the rest of that magical day, meandering the narrow back roads of northern KwaZulu-Natal past Dundee and Vryheid, through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen, until I came out on the N2 near Pongola.
From there it was only half an hour to the turn-off to Jozini, for me the highlight of the trip. The town of Jozini sits on top of the Lebombo mountains at the head of the Pongola Poort dam, surrounded by some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in South Africa.
I was there briefly in 1982 and promised myself then that I would return; it had taken 31 years but finally I had done it. I spent the rest of the afternoon riding around the Jozini area, just drinking it in, before heading south to Mkuze for my overnight stop, an overpriced hotel with mediocre food that I had chosen online because it was the only one in the area that wasn’t at the wrong end of a gravel road.
STRANGELY RELUCTANT TO HURRY
I was glad to turn on to the N2 in the morning for the last 508km to Margate, but strangely reluctant to hurry. I had been on my own on the road for nearly a week and had become used to it – I hadn’t even used the radio since mid-morning on Day 1.
The closer I got to Margate the more pronounced the feeling became, until I pulled into a truck-stop at Umkomaas, just 90km short of my destination, to find literally hundreds of riders off-loading their machines from their trailers so that they could arrive at Africa Bike Week on their bikes.
Dozens of them passed me as I cruised the last few kilometres of the longest solo ride of my life, just living in the moment until I switched off the engine for the last time in front of the Harley-Davidson truck in Margate, five days and 2635km from Cape Town.
Did I feel superior? A little, but more than that, I was honoured - I had learned more about myself than about the Street Glide, learned that there are no big achievements, just small people doing their best.