I recently did a 16 day Cape to Kalahari ride with RideDownSouth Motorcycle Tours, based in Capetown. It was actually the first time I’ve been on a ride organised by someone else, having run them for years for a group of mates in Australia and more recently as a sideline business in Cambodia. Africa wasn’t on my bucket list either, I only went because a mate, John Boyd, asked me to go and I couldn’t come up with a good enough excuse not to. I had the time, the money – and as it was their first big trip the blokes were running it for cost price so it was an absolute bargain.
I have to say my expectations of Africa were quite low, I envisioned post-Apartheid South Africa as a dangerous, unfriendly basket case. How wrong I was!
Arriving in Capetown after an all-night flight via Qatar, I was met by Jonathon, brother of one of RideDownSouth’s owners. We picked up Darryl, an old school mate, from the domestic terminal, he’d spent the night in Johannesburg after flying non-stop from Sydney the previous day. Darryl was going to be travelling in the support vehicle. The weather was awful, cold and raining, which didn’t look good for the ride but it was forecast to clear next day.
After checking into our hotel, The Adderley, Darryl and I met up with John and Geoff who were also coming on the ride and staying at the same hotel. John has previously joined me on rides in Cambodia, and Geoff is a work mate from Laos. We spent the afternoon down on the waterfront, stocking up on camp gear for the trip. The favourable exchange rate made some items very cheap, Geoff ended up buying a new helmet and riding jacket for a lot less than Australian prices.
That night we met Andrew and Grant from RideDownSouth for dinner, and also Graeme, another rider. Next day the weather was forecast to improve so we planned to meet at Andrew’s house and go for a ride around Capetown to familiarize ourselves with the bikes. John and I, being a bit vertically challenged, were allocated Suzuki V-Strom 650s, while Geoff and Graeme had Africa Twin 750s. Grant was riding a Triumph Tiger 800 and Darryl rode pillion with Andrew.
It was a glorious day, not a cloud in the sky and a crispness in the air without being uncomfortably cold. Capetown is a beautiful city, at least the parts of it that we saw. The roads are magnificent, especially Chapman’s Peak Drive where the road is carved out of the escarpment, which overhangs it in some sections. We stopped for photos where the road overlooks Hout Bay before continuing on back to Capetown.
That night we met Grant and Graeme for dinner, whilst Andrew was busy packing up the car and trailer. I was quite surprised to find out that the support vehicle was a small Renault car, I’d expected something more substantial, but as it turned out Rene did a mighty job pulling the trailer, sometimes with two bikes on it, plus all the camping gear, luggage and people.
Next morning we met again at Andrew’s house, to complete the final packing of the bikes and car, and for a final briefing on the ride.
Soon we were on the road, following the coastline for most of the morning before turning inland towards our destination, Nieuwoudville. On the way we negotiated several mountain passes, the spectacular Van Ryhns Pass after sunset, with buffeting winds at the summit which blew me onto the wrong side of the road.
After finding the gravel road in we reached Delande Guesthouse, a very homely farmstay, with a blazing fire and a delicious dinner prepared for us. On the way in Andrew received a call from Nick in the support vehicle, who was having problems coming up Van Ryhns Pass. Word got around that it was a clutch problem, which seemed feasible given the diminutive size of the car and the load it was carrying. An hour or so later, the car arrived and it turned out that a plastic component which hadn’t been installed securely had dropped onto the exhaust, causing a fire. Nick and Darryl had put out the fire and everything was ok.
Next day we detoured to check out a quiver tree forest, which looked like aloe vera plants stuck on top of dead tree trunks. Back in Nieuwoudville, Protea Motors service station had an impressive collection of motorbikes, around 400 in total and not all on display.
The day was getting on, and we had over 400 km to cover before crossing the border into Namibia so we backtracked down Van Ryhns Pass before heading northward on Road 7. The crosswinds were quite strong, and constant, which necessitated riding with a slight lean into the wind in order to maintain a straight line. The country was quite dry and barren, and looked similar to parts of Australia. The speed limit on the open road was 120 km/h so we were able to make good time.
I was riding behind Geoff and could smell that his bike was burning a bit of oil, but early in the afternoon I noticed visible smoke from the exhaust. Geoff and I had taken up the option of fitting Sena bluetooth headsets to our helmets so I was able to call him and suggest that we pulled over as soon as possible. We found that there was no oil on the dipstick, so the spare bike was taken off the trailer and Geoff’s bike put back on.
It was after dark when we arrived at the border crossing at Vioolsdrif. Departing South Africa was easy, their immigration and customs systems efficient and the staff were friendly. I felt a bit sad that we’d only spent 4 days there, hopefully I can return for another visit. Namibian Immigration and Customs weren’t as efficient as South Africa’s, and there seemed to be a problem with the registration number of Graeme’s bike, as it was coming up in their system as a car. After an hour or so of phone calls they seemed to resolve the issue and we were underway again, following the Orange River to Felixe Unite campground where we set up camp in an outdoor kitchen/eating area instead of pitching tents, as it was well after dark when we arrived.
Next morning, we continued alongside the Orange River, where there was a fertile strip about 1 km wide and then stark, barren looking hills which seemed to be crumbling into sandhills at their base. Apparently this strip of fertile ground produces the largest crop of table grapes in the world, which fetch a good price in Europe as they reach market earlier than other countries. Before long we turned off onto a gravel road and headed away from the river, into dry and virtually treeless country. We wouldn’t see much more bitumen until we reached Windhoek four days later.
Around lunch time we arrived at Canyon Roadhouse, where we would spend the night. They had a splendid collection of old vehicles and motoring memorabilia, inside and outside the main building. We ate dinner and breakfast beside a grey Fergie tractor and a red Morris Minor, with a Mercedes ambulance on the other side of the table. The vehicles outside were in good condition, due to the absence of moisture in the air.
After lunch we rode to Fish River Canyon which is the largest in Africa and up to 550 metres deep. Nick had brought a drone with him, which he set up and captured some awesome images of us and the bikes on the canyon rim. He said the wind was too strong to fly it over the canyon itself.
We left Canyon Roadhouse fairly early, bound for Betesda Lodge near Sesreim. It was a fairly uneventful day, mostly riding on recently graded gravel roads. In the late afternoon I came to a sharp left hand bend, which caught me a bit by surprise, and found Andrew and Geoff pulled up 200 metres further on. I switched off the engine and we waited for the others to catch up. In a while Graeme and Grant arrived, but not John. He had been fairly close behind me for most of the day so we all wondered what had happened. Andrew and I decided to ride back and look for him and as soon as we reached the sharp bend I saw John crawling up the embankment at the side of the road. He’d overshot the corner, becoming airborne before landing in a cluster of large rocks. It appeared that his ankle was broken, so we carefully removed his boots and helmet and made him as comfortable as we could on the roadside.
After discussing the options for evacuation, and realizing there was no phone coverage, it was decided to rearrange the luggage in the car to make room for John, and put his bike on the trailer. Betesda Lodge was another 100 km further so we continued on at a more subdued pace, arriving there around 8:00 pm. Just before, an oryx had galloped out of the darkness right in front of me and another one had propped and extended his horns at Andrew as he passed. Eventually a room was made available and we helped John hop from the car and onto the bed. An hour later the ambulance arrived and soon he was on his way to hospital. We assumed he’d be taken to Windhoek but as it turned out he went to a small regional hospital in Rehoboth.
Next day started out as a rest day but around 11 am we decided to ride 40 km to Sesreim to see the dunes of the Namibian Desert, which stretched 200 km westwards to the Atlantic Ocean. At Sesreim we discovered that motorbikes were not permitted on the 60 km road to Sossusvlei, where the dunes start, and all the shuttle buses had departed already. Rene the Renault was emptied out and Darryl, Graeme, Geoff and myself hit the road with Darryl driving. At Sossusvlei we negotiated a price with a large African lady for a 4 wheel drive vehicle and driver to take us to the sand dunes. Geoff and Graeme climbed to the top of the biggest dune where we were dropped off, Darryl and I resisted the urge.
As there were some steep mountain passes between Sesreim and Windhoek, Andrew and Grant decided that Grant would take Rene to Windhoek that afternoon and exchange it for a four wheel drive pickup. Next morning Grant hadn’t returned, so Andrew, Graeme, Geoff and myself left on the bikes, leaving Nick and Darryl to continue later when the vehicle arrived. It was a fairly uneventful day on the bikes, we travelled at a relaxed pace and arrived at Eden Chalets, our accommodation in Windhoek, mid-afternoon. We’d stopped for a rest along the way in a dry creek and were surprised to find an American cyclist digging in the sand for water. I offered him some water but he declined, saying that he would ride another 25 km to the next creek and get some there. He’d ridden from Tanzania and was bound for Capetown, which made our efforts seem a bit weak and puny.
Arriving in Windhoek was the end of the first leg and meant a change of crew, Grant and Nick were returning to Capetown and we were joined by Drew, who took over the Triumph, and Kirsty drove Rene. John had been released from Rehoboth Hospital so Drew picked him up that night. Although the hospital had advised there was nothing much wrong with him, and that he could could rejoin the tour, by the time he arrived in Windhoek he was feeling quite ill and decided he would stay there and seek medical advice. As it turned out, a wise decision.
After booking John into a B&B, we departed Windhoek bound for Botswana. After a few hours we reached the border crossing at Buitepos and passed through smoothly. Some time before we’d descended from a high plateau into sandy country covered in low scrub. Most of the country we rode through in Botswana looked similar, the only fertile land appeared to be along the Okavango River further north.
Just on dark we reached the turnoff into Dqae Qare San Lodge, not looking forward to the 7 km of loose sand Andrew had warned us about. With that in mind we reduced tyre pressure on our bikes and started off while Andrew waited for the car to catch up. As it turned out, much of the road had been gravelled, so the sand wasn’t a problem. Graeme had a couple of wrestling matches with gravity and came off second best and Rene made it all the way in but became bogged 50 metres from the guesthouse.
Next day we went out on the reserve with Khao, our San guide, who showed us how to track animals, recognise them by their droppings and how to light a fire. Dqae Qare was a great place to stay, the accommodation was clean and comfortable and the meals were fantastic, prepared and served by San women. Outside the bar/restaurant was a floodlit waterhole where game came in to drink at all hours.
After leaving Dqae Qare, we had to pump up the tyres before setting off for Shakawe, on the Okavango River. The road was badly potholed and was like an obstacle course, but I managed to miss every one of them. However, when riding into a village to find some lunch, I rode over a concrete driveway realising too late that the soil was eroded away behind it, with the result the sump guard bottomed out. Straight away I could smell oil burning so stopped to have a look. One of the sump guard mounts had punched a hole through the sump, causing the oil to run out onto the exhaust. What a bugger! We had to drain the oil and put the bike on the trailer as it was only another 100 km to our destination, Drotsky’s Cabins. That 100 kms felt like the longest in history as I rode on the back of Drew’s bike. How anyone can enjoy riding pillion is beyond me.
Drotsky’s campground was right on the bank of the Okavango River, and we could hear hippos roaring and crashing through the reedbeds after dark. That night we were ferried up to the main resort by boat to enjoy a sumptious buffet dinner and for the Facebook addicts to connect to their WiFi. I have to say the dinner was a lot better than the WiFi, which seemed to be the case wherever we stayed in Botswana and Namibia. It was so slow even emails wouldn’t download, even after an hour.
Next morning, Graeme, Geoff, Darryl, Drew and I went on a fishing trip upriver. Within 50 metres of the camp reception office we saw a crocodile sunning on the bank. Geoff got some close-up video footage with his selfie stick before it disappeared into the river. Further upstream a large hippo emerged from the water after we noticed a big air bubble come to the surface. Darryl, Geoff and Drew were fishing and soon Drew had a large catfish in the landing net, after some photos it was released into the water. Drew was keen to catch a tigerfish but seemed to be out of luck, however just before we reached the landing back at at the campground he caught a small one. It might have been small but it had very big teeth, like a piranha. It was released after taking a few photos. Meanwhile, back at the camp, Andrew had successfully repaired the hole in the sump on my V-Strom and Kirsty cooked some awesome beer bread for lunch.
Next morning we rode through Shakawe and onto the border crossing at Mohembo. After crossing into Namibia we rode through Mahango Game Reserve, where it seemed we stopped every hundred metres to see wildlife of one sort or another.
Early that afternoon we arrived at Kkwazi Lodge, on the Okavango River near Rundu. I really liked this place, the accommodation was in thatched roof bungalows which were cool, comfortable and well appointed. The Wifi was shite though. After a late lunch we went on a river cruise and crossed over to the Angolan side for photos. Although we saw crocodiles, the local people were bathing in the river. They were always in groups so I guess someone was always on the lookout. The boat was an interesting contraption, two fibreglass canoes cobbled together into a catamaran with an ancient Chrysler outboard on the back. It did the job, getting us there and back without any issues. The boatman positioned it perfectly for sunset views over Angola,with the ubiquitous thorn trees in the background.
That night the RideDownSouth team put on an awesome BBQ, under the stars beside the river. I have to commend their efforts on the trip, they consistently went over and beyond my expectations.
I wouldn’t have minded spending another day or two at Nkwazi Lodge, maybe I’ll get back there again. We had a schedule to meet so fairly early next day we were riding southwest on Route B8, bound for Etosha National Park. At Grootfontein, we detoured to see the Hoba Meteorite, the largest single meteorite ever found. We continued down the B8 and B1 to Otjiwarongo, then northwest on B1 to Eldorado Guesthouse. It ended up a long day, around 700 km but we still arrived in daylight. The accommodation at Eldorado was great, and the food was fantastic. I’ve not eaten much meat for years but the kudu I ate at Eldorado gave me the tase for red meat again.
Andrew had booked a full day game drive in Etosha National Park so it was an early start next morning. Our guide, Willem, gave us some blankets to keep warm in the back of the open truck we were travelling in and we definitely needed them. It soon warmed up as the sun rose. At the entry to Etosha I saw a woman in tribal dress selling souvenirs so I bought some and had a photo taken with her. Her hair was formed into dreadlocks with red mud and she had a baby slung from her back. Etosha, and most of Namibia, was experiencing a drought so the waterholes were kept topped up from bores. Consequently, it was just a matter of driving from one waterhole to the next to see every type of game animal. About the only one we didn’t see was a rhino but Willem informed us that poachers had shot one in the park that day.
Sadly the trip was quickly drawing to an end. I felt like I was just getting into the swing of things, and looked forward to riding to new places and experiences every day. It was a relatively short ride back down Routes C38 and B1 next day, with about 50 km of gravel into Camp Elephant at the end.
After arrival at Elephant Camp, we booked onto a game drive. We only had 30 minutes before it departed so everyone pitched in to make a fire, chop up the veges and prepare dinner in the camp oven. The first hour of the game drive was fairly uneventful, we saw a giraffe, crocodile and various antelope. Rudi, the driver, heard on the radio that lions had been sighted not far away behind a mountain so he headed off in that direction. After a bit of scrub bashing, he managed to get the truck right into the middle of the pride. There were 8 or 9 lions all around us, they appeared to be lying down and resting until we showed up. The lions wandered off towards the road so Rudi followed along behind, allowing us to get some awesome close-up photos. What started out as fairly boring had turned into one of the highlights of the trip. After we’d left the lions behind, and stopped to stretch our legs, it was discovered that a front tyre had been staked. Rudi thought it might only be slow leak and we’d make it back to camp but soon after driving off towards another waterhole it went flat. The spare tyre carrier was broken so we couldn’t lower the spare and Rudi had to call for another vehicle to come and pick us up. It arrived an hour later and we carried on to the other waterhole, seeing the back end of a black rhino as we approached. We arrived back at camp much later than expected, to find the fire had gone out but the chicken casserole was cooked to perfection.
The last day of the trip was an easy ride back to Windhoek, where we stayed at Eden Chalets again. That night we picked John up from his hotel and took him out for dinner. It turned out his shoulder was broken and he’d had skin grafts on top of his foot. He’d made the right decision not coming on the tour. We had dinner at Joe’s Beerhouse, which was an excellent choice. My selection was the Namib Bush Fire: Springbok loin, kudu and oryx fillets, served with a red wine sauce, straw potatoes and fresh vegetables. It was awesome!
At 4:15 am Drew drove Kirsty and I to the airport to fly our separate ways. Thank you so much Andrew, Drew, Grant, Nick and Kirsty for your hospitality, your efforts and energy which made our trip so memorable and for showing us your part of the world with such enthusiasm. I truly feel privileged to have shared this with you.
To anyone who reads this, if Africa isn’t on your bucket list put it on now! And there’s nobody better to experience it with than the RideDownSouth team.
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