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The real South Africa

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 @ 21:54

This TourNews edition is written by Hilton Hamilton from South Africa in Randfointain, 50 km from Johannesburg. Hilton is a journalist, photographer and author, read about him on his Facebook  and he wanted to explore motorcycling in a new way, why he went off on a Chinese motorcycle – deomonstrating that a top of the range bike is not necessary to get a life time experience on your motorcycle.

South Africa on Chinese Motorcycle on a dirt road

For a long time I planned a trip that covers the circumference of South Africa on a motorcycle. The idea was to visit places and people I wrote about during my career as a journalist, compiling material for a book.  For example, I wanted to revisit the Denyschens and van Ecks who farmed along the Limpopo river and who had the first landmines that were planted in South Africa laid on the roads to their farms. I wrote their story for the Sunday Times some 27 years ago. I wanted to look up the guy who built an atomic fall-out shelter just outside Messina and to eat and sleep in remote villages while I listened to the tales of the locals. I planned to stop in at the local pubs and chat to the locals as I searched for the real South Africa I so much enjoyed in the 70s and 80s.                                                                      

But I wanted to do it differently -- on a bike anyone could afford.

After much investigation I decided the best bike for the journey was a Vuka XL110, a Chinese copy of the C-series Hondas --total price, including VAT, R5995.00 (about US$800). The trip would have to be broken up into a number of smaller legs -- I have to earn a living and cannot afford to be away for months. My 23 year-old son decided he would also buy a Vuka to use for a 100km round-trip daily commute into the centre of Johannesburg and would join me for the first stage of the journey.

Packing chinese motorcycles in South Africa for motorcycle tour

We planned to travel from Randfontein, where I live, situated about 50km west of Johannesburg, to Beit Bridge, turn left and run along the sisal road and then down the Botswana border, until we once again turned left to make our way home.

At the beginning of December we set out, loaded to the gills. We carried camping equipment, sleeping bags, clothes, some spares and five litres of spare fuel 

each. It looked as though we were setting off on an around the world trip -- something that is percolating in the back of my mind.

It was a cool and overcast morning and the route took us through the Magaliesberg mountains, past the Hartbeespoort Dam and through Brits as we headed towards the Waterberg. In Brits, around 100km from home, we filled up for the first time and just outside the town we ran into rain. It came down like great, fat, pregnant, liquid bullets. 

Ready on the motorcycle for some good experiences

The roads and surrounding fields were flooded and, though we put on our rain gear before it started raining, we still got soaked.  The water was shin-deep in the lands next to the road but we ploughed on to Thabazimbi, sometimes pushed off the shoulder of the road by the giant iron-ore-carrying trucks that run to and from the town.

We stopped, looking like drowned rats, at a local steakhouse in Thabazimbi for lunch, to dry out and wait out the deluge.  Then it was decision time. Do we check in somewhere in Thabazimbi -- our gear was too wet to even contemplate camping -- or do we head for Vaalwater or Ellisras?

Lucky break

In the end we decided to go to Ellisras. I figured we'd be more likely to find accommodation there if we arrived late. I was wrong.

There was not a single bed to be had in the town. A new power station is being built in the area and accommodation was at a premium. We rode from place to place but everywhere was full. Then we called a number we saw on a signboard advertising a place called Jan se Gat.

It was a lucky break.

Jan se Gat is a private farm with a holiday lodge on it, owned by Jan Eckhard.  He is a typical Northern Transvaal farmer, complete with short pants and rugby socks and tall as a tree. A nicer guy you couldn't hope to meet. He said if he'd known we were coming he'd have got some of the local manne (guys) around for a braai (barbecue) and a few drinks but he was adamant that we come back again some time. In any case, he arranged that we have breakfast with his mother the next morning.

Jan's personal holiday spot was truly the equal of many swanky game lodges in Southern Africa. It had a semi-open-air kitchen and a boma overlooking the river.  The only "complaint," and it had nothing to do with the place or the owners, was, because of the rains, millions of flying ants had left their nests and invaded the rooms. The place literally crawled an inch deep in them. They do not bite but are an irritation.

We travelled 417 km that day and each of us used around 8,5 litres of fuel.

Packed and ready for a father/son motorcycle ride in South Africa

The next morning we packed the bikes and headed off at around 07h00 to have breakfast with Jan's mother, Marieta. She was about to leave for Pretoria as she runs a little home-industries business and was exploring a new market.When we arrived at the farmhouse she had prepared a gift of homemade ginger biscuits and could not have made us feel more welcome. Her daughter, Susanna, was also there and she made breakfast after Marieta left. I guess Susanna was in her 30s. She was a tour guide in Vaalwater, a small town in the region, and had obviously gone through hard times as she talked about having living in Cape Town where a serious relationship broke down.  She returned to the family farm after her father, who bought the 4 800ha property in 1948, died.

We left Jan se Gat reluctantly and headed to Vaalwater where we stopped for fuel and struck up conversation with a fellow traveller who said he admired us but thought we were  - fucking crazy to do the trip on such small bikes!

From there we headed for Alldays, 205km away. The trip had been fantastic as the area is game farm country and we saw plenty of wild animals in the game farms we passed by on the road.  

Wild animals

I saw impala, kudu, warthog, a sable antelope, velvet monkeys, baboons and almost rode over a tortoise.

In a way, it was like riding through paradise -- except the wind always seemed to be in our faces and the top speed of the little bikes dropped to around 50km/h. Along the way we passed a couple of crosses on the roadside and I wondered who those people were and how they died. I sometimes wonder if that will be my fate one day. We had a great ride from Vaalwater, filled up at Marken (just dot on the map) and continued heading for Alldays which, according to the GPS, is 205 kilometres from Vaalwater.

At Tolwe, a tiny place consisting of less than ten buildings, we encountered a dirt road that, according to the map, is 32km in length. I led the way and two kilometres down the road, riding at about 50km/h, as I tried to move off corrugations threatening to break the bikes apart, I hit a patch of thick sand, the front wheel twisted and the bike and I went down.

A sour arm after the motorcycle accident

I clearly remember my head hitting the ground and getting sand inside the helmet. The impact on my chest and left shoulder was immense and for a while I lay there, winded and dazed. I tried to move but couldn't. I was sure my left arm was broken.

I heard Bryan saying: Dad, Dad, are you okay? and I mumbled; I don't think so.He also fallen while trying to avoid me. He lifted my bike off me and helped me sit up. Pain prevented me from lifting my left arm or removing my helmet. The top box had broken off my bike and the front peg was bent so that the gear lever could not operate without first being hammered straight.I swallowed a batch of Grandpa headache powders and we tried to figure out what to do next. Fortunately Bryan had had the foresight to pick up both bikes immediately so they were both able to start. At that point I was convinced I had broken my collar bone and there was no way we could push on to Alldays or that I could ride 30 kilometres of sand and corrugations. I knew I would not be able to handle the next, inevitable fall.

Road side fuelling in South Africa

But one thing was certain, we were going to have to ride out of there. I was simply going to have to suck it up and get through it. We decided we should head for the nearest big town where we would have the best chance of finding accommodation -- or so I thought.




Nightmare route

The trip from Tolwe to Potgietersrus was a nightmare-route of around 150km. We got onto the N11, a single-lane artery to Botswana on which drivers seemed to delight in seeing just how fast and close they could fly past us. Once I had my left hand on the handle-bars it had to stay there because, if it came off the grip I could not get it back on without using my right hand to help. A piece of duct-tape solved that problem and I was mighty glad the bikes were fitted with automatic clutches!
Every bump in the road was agony and we arrived in Potgietersrus when it was already dark, after running a harrowing gauntlet of taxis without lights, goats randomly crossing the road and pedestrians stepping into our way.

Bryans taillight had stopped working and he was leading the way and I feared someone would not see him and hit him from behind. I prayed a lot, especially when idiots came flying past me almost pushing me off the road. I worried about Bryan -- the pictures that formed in my mind were vivid and horrible and I could not shake them until we were safely in town. Potgietersrus was nothing like I remembered it from 27 years before.

Sundry pictures of Jan se Gat

Downtown it is a third world shit-hole and when you're in pain, it is even worse. Taxis cut in front of you and stop wherever they please. Music blares from crappy fast food places and, although I saw a traffic cop, he did nothing about the traffic violations taking place right in front of his nose. We stopped at a hotel and while I sat on the bike, unable to remove my helmet, Bryan went to see if he could get us a room. We just filled up at a nearby petrol station, a process that required untying the ropes lashing the sleeping bags and camping mattresses to the saddles, so the petrol tanks, located beneath the seats could be accessed.

The motorcycles after the accident on the dirt road i South Africa

With a 3 1/2 litre tank and a range of around 130 km that chore needed to be done often and, what was initially an amusing quirk, quickly became a major irritation. Like the Nativity story, there was no room at the inn but at the fourth establishment from which we were turned away, the owner took pity on us and  phoned a friend who owned a guest house. We got a room for R550 at the Platinum Guest house that I paid for, because I felt guilty about screwing up Bryan's trip.

While he brought in the bike cargo I gulped down more Grandpa Headache powders. Then he helped me undress and I stood under a hot shower. We ordered hamburgers from a local place called Alley Cats that turned out to be the best hamburgers I have ever eaten and only cost R19 (approx $2.50) each.

After supper I watched a programme on SABC 3 TV called Cape Grape Race, a very poor mans local version of the Amazing Race, where, instead of travelling to exotic international destinations, contestants had to catch fish in local dams, cook them and then identify the best wine to accompany the fish they were too squeamish to gut and scale in the first place. They also had to assemble a barrel at a local wine farm that, in my drug-addled state, I thought strangely appropriate, as it really was scraping the bottom of the television barrel.
I did not sleep much that night and had time to think about a lot of things. Like what would have happened if Bryan had not been there to help me when I fell?

What would have happened if I had been more seriously injured? Bryan would have had to get me medical attention and get me evacuated.

These are not the sort of problems you want to heap on someone, let alone a youngster who has taken a week's leave from work to join you on a trip. Doubts came thick and fast and I wrestled with the idea that perhaps the motorcycle travel book I wanted to write was out of my reach. We left after breakfast the next morning and decided to take our chances by running straight down the N1 highway, as the road has a wide shoulder and we could keep out of the way of the fast-moving traffic.  

Sundry pictures of Jan se Gat - in South Africa with barbeque   South Africa nature and motorcycle

Motorcycle journey home

The journey back home can be summed up in three words: long, sore and scary.  Seven hours later we got home with the realization that, as Bryan said: on a small motorcycle you are the bottom of the food-chain! When you are going absolutely flat out, with a petrol tanker only two metres behind you, blaring its air-horn, your mind tends to become focussed! I do not think I was ever more pleased to get home and see my wife, Joy, other son, Kevin and my animals.

The next day x-rays showed nothing was broken but the radiologist suspected a torn rotator-cuff. I was given a months-worth of pain-killers and an appointment was made to see an orthopaedic surgeon at the end of January. Fortunately my arm and shoulder recovered quickly and an operation was not necessary and I had no problems since. My intention was, and still is, to find the real essence of South Africa and to write the book. Not the South Africa found in the large cities but rather to link up with people who are  - salt of the earth.

It will be a pilgrimage to rediscover the soul of a country that has evaded me for many years. The dream lives on. In a way, as a middle-aged White Ou, (a white guy) one of South Africa's most endangered species, it is been forced upon me. My pickup truck was stolen recently and I decided to do the non-sensible thing and buy a bike (Suzuki DR600) rather than a replacement car. If I can sort the cash out, I plan to light up Doctor Thump and aim at distant horizons towards the end of July.

Sundry pictures of Jan se Gat - house with fetched roof in South Africa  Motorcycles on the road near Ellisras

Some facts and figures about the trip:

  • Distance covered: 1149km
  • Trip duration: 3 days
  • Fuel used: 29,5 litres
  • Consumption: 43,33 km/l

Accommodation cost per person: R455 (approximately $60) Sundry meals: approx R150 (approximately $18) Whiskey: R29.50 (approx $4). Total cost not counting spares bought beforehand: R848.63 (approx $120)

The bikes performed flawlessly. They never missed a beat and could not be faulted in terms of reliability. Bryans chain seemed to stretch a little but was simple to adjust.

Pros of travelling on a small motorcycle:

  • Cheap to run.
  • Light. Can easily be recovered or carried over obstacles.
  • Can be locked in a room if necessary.
  • Slower so you tend to see more.

Cons of travelling on a small motorcycle:

  • Slower so you are the bottom of the food-chain.
  • Every journey is incredibly long.
  • Frequent fill-ups are very inconvenient.

Motorcycles on the dirt road near Ellisras   Filling the motorcycle with benzin in South Africa


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