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.

I believe it's impossible to shove a story so grand into a "today we had scrumptious gruel in Hanover" format, so perhaps the best I can do is encapsulate the highest of the high points. Those on the tour with me will undoubtedly shout, "What about the waterfalls pouring thousands of feet down the Langeberg mountains!" and, "What about the World's Highest Bungee Jump!" and probably even, "What about the time Roger stuck that lady's corn cob in his ear and had to pay for it?" Sadly, there just isn't room to report all the amazing and crazy things we saw and did.

♦ One of our most giddy highs was an optional early evening run with Hellrigl over a dirt pass called Swartberg just outside of Oudtshoorn. We'd already had several days of alarmingly beautiful vistas, so we were really in it for the promise of an off-road adrenaline rush. And sure enough, our teeth were coffee brown by the time we got to the summit, as we'd been unable to stop laughing during the dusty ascent. Top of the world? Pretty close. It was certainly as high as we could get without drugs.

♦ Yummy babootie. Sounds kinda sexy, I know, but it is really just good South African-style chili, and my favorite thing we ate on the trip.

♦ On the afternoon of the sixth day, Preining offered those interested a little scouting opportunity that would take us into the tribal lands of the Transkei region, near Umtata, where Nelson Mandela was born. We'd attempt to close a loop to a bay called Qora Mouth, which we could tell on the map would offer a completely remote beach experience, maybe even time for another dry-your-bum dip in the ocean. What we found was vastly more refreshing. The tribal villages of the Tembu, only one of several indigenous cultures we encountered between Cape Town and Johannesburg, are made up of whitewashed mud and thatch huts scattered among the rolling green hills like so many flower petals after a summer wind. Even though it required a strong hand to negotiate the winding, rutted dirt roads, we still made the effort to wave back to the kids who came running across the fields to greet us.

♦ Everywhere we went in South Africa people would gather around our bikes, and the same was true out here in the Transkei. There came a moment, though, when the magnetism of those smiling faces suddenly became much more important than our destination. So we stopped. And we let ourselves be totally embraced by these kids with their magical sense of simplicity and joyful curiosity. At one point I was taking digital pictures of them and then showing them the screen. And they were so floored. I was so floored. I'd shoot and then they'd dogpile me. We took them for rides on the bikes, they asked us our names and we tried to pronounce theirs. I don't know how long we stayed, but we never made it near the beach, and when we finally did ride away we'd all been moved to the point of feeling shaken. These people had an inexplicable feeling of happiness surrounding them, yet they were very poor, their futures so limited. It was a kind of happiness that was new to us. Haunting, almost, because the purity of it seemed unobtainable.

♦ This experience wouldn't have been available from the seat of a car or a tour bus, of course. When you are on a motorcycle you are infinitely more connected to your surroundings. There's no ignoring the smells, the temperatures, the hands outstretched in greeting. All day we would wave back to people, even to the drivers of oncoming cars and trucks who would flash their lights in greeting. We were surprised at how even this fleeting bit of contact seemed to make them so happy. You can imagine the cumulative effect it had on us. Our souls grew fat and jolly.

♦ After we'd seen South Africa so close up, it was impossible not to be infected by its generosity of spirit. I know our last gourmet roadside picnic (an original Edelweiss tradition) at Torgaat Beach was not only a favorite moment of the guests, but also of the guides, simply because of the people we shared it with. We had extra food, so Hellrigl and Preining invited everyone around us to join in. The warm feeling made it easier to say goodbye to the crazy-blue Indian Ocean, which we'd turn away from that eighth day so we could make our way inland toward Zulu territory and finally Kruger National Park for a bit of the real, real Africa. The one involving lions, rhinos, zebras and giraffes...and a food chain that doesn't include brie cheese.

♦ Our time among the Zulu was priceless. We stayed in huts on the location set of the 1986 miniseries Shaka Zulu that follows Africa's most famous tribal king's life and his people's struggle during the height of British invasion. The sets are now used as dioramas, and the locals dress in somewhat authentic fashion and reenact period lifestyle. This was colorful and fun, if a bit hokey. The coolest thing was talking to the Zulu about how modern tribal life stays surprisingly true to ancient structure and ritual. If you have enough cows, for example, you can buy as many wives as you can handle.

♦ Doing a "game drive" at Kruger is kinda like a quickie safari. You spend a half day hunting Africa's Big Five: elephant, leopard, lion, rhino and water buffalo, only with cameras instead of guns. From our two hired Rovers (you'd get eaten on a bike) we saw three out of five (no leopard or rhino), plus about 100 other animals that amazed us, many of which we'd never heard of. No Africa Safari U.S.A., this government-protected reserve shelters more than 50 million acres. The animal viewing was definitely a highlight, but perhaps more unforgettable were the two nights spent at the Protea Hotel at Kruger Gate. Edelweissaccommodations are always high-quality and memorable, but this place was enchanting, and it wasn't just the amazing food or the wild monkeys hanging about the elevated, open-terrace lobby either. The nights at Kruger Gate were so special because we'd gotten to know each other so well. We'd shared so much by that point. South Africa had become a part of us, and in that sense, we'd become a part of each other.

Leaving the wilds of Kruger, I didn't expect more than a trudge to Johannesburg, where I knew my euphoria would be spoiled by another 24-hour plane ride (and a lifetime of not being in South Africa), but the route from the park to Waterval Boven turned out to be rather exceptional. First we wound our way up onto the Drakensberg plateau to gaze down into Blyde River Canyon. I'd heard it referred to as South Africa's Grand Canyon, which I thought an insult because this shocking geologic wonder is far too distinct to be compared to anything else on the planet. The next stop was God's Window. Surely some of you remember the cult film The Gods Must Be Crazy. Well, this is the exact spot the little bushman, Xi, throws the troublesome Coke bottle over the "end of the earth." Having no evil of my own to expel, I was left to consider whether this was a window looking into heaven, or a window looking out.

Butt rash and all, this particular Edelweiss trip has become my favorite experience in 20 years of riding. Totally unexpected. Also unexpected was the difficulty I had saying goodbye to the people I'd shared it with. Sooner than any of us wanted, we were toasting farewell and catching planes in different directions.

When I finally got home I was still waving, though hardly anyone waved back. Weeks later, I'm still smiling at people I pass on the street, still throwing out animated hellos and good mornings. Trying, anyway. It's inevitable, I suppose, that the elixir of Good Hope begins to fade. In the absence of reciprocation I may become a little sullen myself, yet this unrequited joy has a certain positive: It only deepens my appreciation for all the wonderful things I found in South Africa. For what you will find, too, should you choose to journey there.

To this day, as I tell people about riding motorcycles in South Africa, my hand unconsciously rises to cover my chest. Perhaps I fear my heart will simply leap out and disappear.

And I'll have to take another 24-hour plane ride to retrieve it.

Looking out over Blyde River Canyon at the "Three Rondevals" one gets the scope of South Africa's allure
We found the real magic close-up, meeting ladies like these three
The Cape of Good Hope marked a turning point of luck to early seafarers
Amazing roads, like these esses, kept us in good spirits
At "Shakaland," a kitschy tribal village, the Zulu warriors fell in love with our BMWs
Swartberg Pass