Motorcycle Adventure to The Heart of Africa

A casual adventure in South Africa becomes a full-blown love affair

It is possible to fall in love with a country the same way we fall in love with another human being. The texture of its landscape can make your heart race, the sound of its name send shivers. You can be sure of this fate when you understand a country more inside your chest than with your mind. When you look into the eyes of its people and their smiles leave you breathless.

This was South Africa to me. A love affair.

Of course, it would have been even better without the butt rash, but that's life. The Nothing's Perfect clause. Early in the adventure I'd rather unwisely forgotten moto-traveler's rule #157: "After impromptu dips in the ocean, always change out of your wet suit before riding away, taking care to dry your bum completely." A folly, indeed, and one exaggerated by the cruel stock seat of my rental BMW R1200GS. I love this bike almost as much as South Africa, but I must admit I fantasize about slashing its seat to the beat of a tribal drum.

Despite such physical malady, motorcycle touring in South Africa is a powerful elixir, and one made especially potent when administered via an Edelweiss experience. The tour I joined was a 14-day trek running from Cape Town northeast to Johannesburg. This particular affair was a "scouting" tour, which means you could have the happy option to explore a little uncharted territory. Edelweiss runs its South Africa tours in two one-way segments back and forth between the two major cities twice each year during the warm, South African summer.

BMW motorcycles are the mode du journey on almost all Edelweiss tours, and in South Africa we were able to choose an F650GS, R1200GS, R1150RT or R1150R. In my opinion, the big GS is the only way to go on a trip like this because it allows you to chase horizons in absolutely any direction. You can conquer the trickiest dirt road, be comfortable on the longest highway and, once you're used to it, pass your sportbike friends in the tightest corner--waving see ya with one hand. Our route involved very few dirt roads, and those were hard-packed and easy for everyone. However, when there were options to explore more unruly dirt, it was a blessing to be on a big GS, and the four riders who did have these machines (and the experience to utilize their capabilities) were able to enjoy a supplementary trek or two, which would turn out to be the icing on the adventure.

I arrived in Cape Town after a two-day transit that included a 5-hour red-eye and a 19-hour nonstop from Atlanta, feeling more like an eggplant than an eager tourist. Markus Hellrigl, an Edelweiss lead guide with whom I'd already had the pleasure of traveling on an Alps tour, met me at the gate with such enthusiasm for our pending adventure that I couldn't help but feel a spark of excitement. After all, Hellrigl's passion was the reason I was here. It was his charged account of South Africa, first heard over rounds of hearty German beer, that originally piqued my interest. Meeting Christian Preining, our second tour guide, would complete the transfusion. Preining is so intensely humorous and immediately charming I knew I was going to spend much of the next 14 days enduring fits of laughter.

I enjoyed our group immediately. Twelve guests, as different as could be: From 34 to 69, married to single, rich to struggling, Austrian, German and American. Somehow we jelled immediately and stayed cohesive the entire two weeks. No subgroups, no splintering. Before leaving the city we would also meet Edelweiss clients who had just come in from the route we would be taking. They were so animated--like kids just getting off a roller coaster and running down the ramp shouting, "Let's do it again!" And so tan, these moms and pops, telling tales about carefree ocean swims and whoop-ridden dirt roads.

We all found Cape Town an easy place to be, especially for Westerners. The official language in South Africa is English, after all, so we Americans didn't even need to apologize for our notoriously lazy attempts at linguistics. The city is bright and lively, sided by the Atlantic and swept clean by its sea-charged air. Though thoroughly cosmopolitan at its core, Cape Town is encircled by shantytowns, a reminder of this country's ongoing disparity. And though we never felt it, we heard that the dark shadows cast by apartheid linger here in the city. Not surprising, knowing it was only 10 short years ago the country was still in turmoil. Robben Island and the prison that held Nelson Mandela captive for 18 years sits only seven miles off Cape Town's shore. Such reminders make it all feel too fresh to be history, and too shameful to possibly be so fresh.

We were able to visit many local treasures on our first riding day, including the Cape of Good Hope, but most of us will remember it as the day we spent weirded out trying to ride on the left side of the road while dodging baboons and wild ostrich. You get used to such oddities as you spend more time here. Each day would bring entirely new experiences as we rode farther from the gleaming port city and closer to the real South Africa--the heart of this country.

Isn't it crazy how we understand on an intellectual level that unrealistic expectations are at the root of nearly all human dissatisfaction? Yet we conjure expectations relentlessly, and usually without even realizing it. I had ideas about what I'd find in South Africa, though I cannot trace them to any particular research or reasoning. I thought it would be dangerous, less than clean and maybe even dripping with villainous bacteria. My imagined South Africa would be rough--plagued with poverty and therefore filled with unhappy, resentful people. And, of course, the black culture there would feel a special animosity toward whites for the cruel injustice of apartheid.

Sometimes what we think we know about a situation turns out to be so utterly different, so conflicting, that we have nothing left to do but clear our minds entirely. To be washed clean.

One rider described this phenomenon as having all the dirt--all the sediment--he'd been carrying in his existing life shaken off so that he felt reborn. It's true the effect may have been exaggerated by his riding an R-bike over way too much washboard, or he might have felt extra squeaky because of our near-daily romps in the Indian Ocean. But truth be told, South Africa was a journey of enlightenment for all of us. From the simple adjustment of having drivers treat you with respect, for example, by pulling toward the emergency lane to let you pass every single time, to having men and women and children absolutely beam at you from the side of the road, waving and clapping and literally dancing at the sight of our motorcycle caravan.

And the sights? How could one not be entertained by such diverse geography? From the immense cliffs cradling the cool blue Indian Ocean, we'd stare down in awe at empty white beaches that went on for miles. In and out of mountainscapes we'd ride, where layers of the earth's crust--ribbons of reds and grays and lichen greens--would tilt and twist enough to make you dizzy. Coast, mountain, prairie, bush, it was all brand new and familiar at once. One day could remind you of the Cascades, the next, southern New Mexico, the next, Thailand. "What about the riding?" my go-fast friends ask. Man. The riding in South Africa is phenomenal. The roads are mostly well kept and quite empty, too. Of course, it helped that our guides knew where to find the twistiest action, and almost every day one of the two optional routes was laced with such tangles, along with bouts of hugely fast and rhythmic sweepers.

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