South Africa: The Rainbow Nation

Text: Florian Neuhauser • Photography: Florian Neuhauser

It’s a long flight, whichever way you spin it. Even though I remind myself of the old adage that it’s about the journey as much as the destination, I think that philosophy doesn’t apply here. Yet as I read my travel guide from the constricted comfort of my airplane seat, I get progressively excited about the upcoming two-week tour of South Africa. This destination has always been on top of my wish list, and part of its allure has to do with the remote location. Add into the mix wild animals in their native habitat, landscapes typically only seen in National Geographic, and trusty BMWs, and you have the perfect recipe for an adventurous motorcycle tour combined with cultural, as well as culinary, delights.

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The maiden voyage of Blue Rim Tours (RoadRUNNER’s newly named organized tours division) to the southern tip of the dark continent brings together seasoned alums and a few folks new to international motorcycle vacationing. Oscar, our tour guide and route master, is the man with the plan, and Connie, his wife, drives the support van carrying our luggage, cold refreshments, and snacks. I’m in the back riding sweep.

Our Arrival

South Africa is known as “The Rainbow Nation,” and it officially recognizes 11 languages. We hear mostly English and Afrikaans, a Dutch derivative. Surprisingly, Cape Town has a very high population of Caucasians. When I inquire about the seeming lack of diversity, the locals tell me that the closer I am to water, the more likely this is to be the case (even though nearly 80 percent of the country’s population is Africans).

Our group is antsy to swing our legs over a BMW and hit the road, but to get acclimated to the time zone, the heat (we escaped one of the worst winters in the U.S. and Canada), and most importantly the traffic on the left, we board the double-decker Red Bus for a sightseeing tour. We visit all the notable stops in Cape Town, including the famous Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront, the glitzy suburb of Camps Bay, and end at Groot Constantia, one of the oldest wine estates in the country, for a tour and tasting. What a befitting welcome to our dream destination.

Cape Town and Around

In the morning, we pick up the rental bikes for the first day of riding. Cape Town is situated along the coast with mountains behind it, which means curves. We snake our way along False Bay, then through Fish Hoek, and finally to Simon’s Town to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (once thought to be the southernmost point of Africa). After the National Park toll station, we see signs warning of baboons and for good reason. These old world monkeys are so smart (and mischievous) that they know how to open car doors. They’ll run off with your backpack, helmet, jacket, or whatever they can get their fingers on. Later we find out from a local that the main reason for the walls and electric fences around houses are to keep baboons out. They open windows, come inside homes, and raid the fridge. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find a monkey in your kitchen drinking from your milk carton—note that the size of the males can be up to 80 pounds!

On the way back we ride one of the top five coastal roads in the world, Chapman’s Peak Drive. The famous road is dramatically carved into the near vertical mountain and offers magnificent views with lots of fun curves—pretty much a perfect ending to a perfect first day ride.

Route 62

As we head inland, the mercury rises to well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re staying in the town of Montagu in the Western Cape, surrounded by fruit orchards used primarily to make dried fruit. This is the birthplace of Route 62, the South African version of America’s Route 66. A smart hotelier marketed a stretch of scenic road that would bring a steady flow of tourists to the area. Route 62 is flanked by orchards and mountains and eventually leads past Ronnie’s Sex Shop. Now before you ask yourself what kind of motorcycle tour this is, it’s not what you think. So the story goes, after a spirited night of drinking at this rest stop, Ronnie’s friends painted those words on the side of his building. Business has been booming ever since, and this local landmark is definitely a must-stop.

A Little Off-road Adventure

We learn that ostrich filet is considered the healthiest red meat one can eat, especially when cooked medium- to medium-rare. It’s very high in protein and iron, yet low in cholesterol. We’re surrounded by ostrich farms, so guess what’s for dinner! I soon discover that it’s the best piece of meat I’ve ever had.

Our hotel is located off a small dirt road, a tenth of a mile back to pavement, or ten miles the other way to explore. In the morning we split up the group. Oscar takes the paved road. I lead a small group to the bottom of Swartberg Pass where I let everyone pass me so they can go at their own pace. Not only is it a fun off-road ride, but also the views down the valley are breathtaking—only outdone by the sights of the other side with the rolling hills and red rocks and seemingly no soul in sight. This is the Africa I imagined.

We meet the rest of the group by the Meiringspoort Waterfall where some of us take off our gear and indulge in a dip in one of the natural pools. The water is very cold, but on a day with a high of 115 degrees, it’s perfectly refreshing.

Safari Time

A trip to South Africa wouldn’t be complete without a safari to see the Big 5—elephants, buffalo, rhinos, lions, and leopards. Two large Land Rovers collect us from the Zuurberg Mountain Village and drive us into the Addo Elephant National Park that is home to more than 500 elephants, 400 buffalo, 50 rhinos, a few lions and leopards, and a plethora of antelopes and other animals. Near the gate we see a herd of zebras and so many different kinds of antelopes that it’s difficult to keep track of them all, but our guide does an excellent job of explaining every animal and even helping to point them out.

At the end of the full day safari, we have seen all but the lion and leopard. The latter will prove difficult to spot as the leopard is active at night. A baboon bone on the dirt road back to the hotel means that there are leopards outside the fences, too, according to our guide. Suddenly our group is a little quieter than usual.

The next morning, we can either relax in the hotel or go on a short off-road loop around the hills. Five of us decide to take the optional morning ride through properties that a few elephants call home. As I come around a corner, a huge pile of elephant dung forces me into the grass. The rider in the front even saw the elephant walk off the road and disappear into the bushes.

After lunch we take our second safari, this time at the Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve, the oldest private viewing reserve in the Eastern Cape. When we arrive, we see mostly the same animals as at the Addo park, but here we’re thrilled to discover a lion with his two lionesses and three cubs lazing in the grass. He’s the king for a reason after all.

Along the Garden Route

Would you jump off a 708-foot tall bridge with a bungee? We neither, it turns out. After much talk, nobody mustered up enough courage to jump off Bloukrans Bridge, the world’s highest commercial bungee jump.

Riding along the N2, also known as the Garden Route, we have plenty of time to view the scenery. The road is quite straight. We pay the toll and enter Tsitsikamma National Park, a multi-dimensional destination with dramatic coastal scenery, reefs, rivers, lush forest, and typical fynbos—or natural shrubland—vegetation. We hike the short trail with tall cliffs left and right to the suspension bridge that hovers over the river flowing into the Indian Ocean.

Riding mostly near the coast again, we head south to Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point and dividing tip where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Surprisingly we’re some of the only visitors here, while staring out into the sea, we enjoy our packed lunches.

More Wine

South Africa is well known for its wine. The towns surrounding Cape Town have a long history in wine-making and include Stellenbosch Paarl, Franschhoek, and Constantia just to name a few. To our delight, scenic pass roads connect the towns, so we spend a whole day wearing off the rubber on the sides.

As we’re riding near Muizenberg, we’re encircled by white sand dunes and gorgeous sea—the beauty of which becomes even more palpable when juxtaposed with the starkness of Mitchell’s Plain, one of the country’s largest townships. This area is home to about 300,000, and it’s known as the worst area for crime. Set right behind the obvious affluence and beauty of the shore, it’s a testament that the harsh realities from apartheid still linger. Such is the Rainbow Nation—a country divided yet learning to live together, and undoubtedly a country rich in both culture and geography.