Latest posts by Emily Conrad-Pickles (see all)
- Cycling from London to Cape Town: The Final Chapter - October 6, 2016
- Cycling Namibian deserts and the last push to Cape Town - May 26, 2016
- Zambia, Zimbabwe, Zebras and a hippo attack on the mighty Zambezi! - April 11, 2016
It’s now been nearly 4 months since we arrived in Cape Town. Four months! I cannot actually believe that it is so long since we finished. I’d hoped we wouldn’t take so long to write this, I guess it has been hard to cast our minds back to the final chapter on the year that has certainly changed our lives. We were over the moon to finish but now we ‘re back to reality. James has been sat back at his desk since 4 July, I’ve now started a new job and we are, sort of, dreaming about being back on the road…
Our last real update was from when we were a few days into the desert in Namibia. We gave a brief summary of life in the desert but let’s cast our minds back to those rough, tough and lonely desert roads and take you on a whirlwind tour of our journey from there to Cape Town.
Throughout this journey, we have found deserts tough – it’s not really surprising when the very notion of a desert is that there’s very little there other than sand and rock. With such vast distances between water sources we knew we needed to be more organised this time round so that we’d avoid the challenges with hydration and sickness we faced earlier on the journey in Sudan and Ethiopia.
Of particular concern was where we were going to find water on the first day into the desert from Walvis Bay. To solve our problem, my magnificent Uncle John actually drove 300km into the desert a couple of weeks before we got there to bury some water for us in case of an emergency. We noted the GPS location of the stash and it turned out to be a lifesaver on that day. Sadly Uncle John passed away recently and we are more grateful than ever that we were able to have such as great family reunion in Namibia. We miss you every day.
Planning done and water targets identified, we chugged on through the Namib Desrt on the rough gravel roads. Although seemingly more remote in some sections, there are several desert tourist attractions and lodges so we were never completely alone. 4X4s passed us frequently (and covered us in thick clouds of dust!)
Because winter was on its way, we also experienced some very chilly nights in our tent with temperatures often falling below freezing. One benefit of this was that we didn’t have to suffer drinking near boiling water during the day however, it did mean that we slept most nights wearing every single item of clothing we had!
From the sand dunes of Sossusvlei we made our way east on the seemingly never ending gravel roads. We were in fact pretty lucky, as many of the roads in the area had been graded recently. The 4x4s and bus traffic churn up the gravel roads so, to smooth out the corrugation, they bring massive tractors – a bit like snow ploughs along these gravel roads to smooth them out.
From Hammerstein Lodge, we stopped at the Lisbon Road House for a drink and discovered that they offered basic camping pitches. We had planned to push on a little further however the owners had a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog called Bruno and once I’d met him, there was little chance of us staying anywhere else that night. I grew up with these dogs and completely adore them and have always dreamt of having my own one-day! I’m not sure it was the best sales pitch to James though as the next morning young Bruno came bounding over to our pitch as we packing to leave for the day and in a fit of excitement leapt on our sun cream piercing the bottle with his claws. This meant we spent our final week squeezing sun cream through a dog’s claw hole and getting sun cream everywhere! Most days started with James grumbling “bloody Bruno!” as he tried to apply his sun cream!
It was around here that I realised that I really did need to do something about my broken bike. Frustrated that the gear cables had decided to snap in the last 10 days, we sought help because not only was I cycling with limited gears but also my bottom bracket was wobbly and it was only a matter of time before it would snap or just fall off. Annoyingly too, we’d been to a really decent bike shop in Windhoek just two weeks before but didn’t know there was a problem with my bike then! With no bike shops in southern Namibia, we set out to see how we could get this fixed. We’d been introduced to the Namibian Cycling Federation and so we got in contact with them to see if they knew anyone in the vicinity who might be able to help us to fix it. Through their network of riders they did manage to find a couple of people who could try but the problem that we had was that we needed new parts. We had also contacted JP, the Director of the African Cycling Centre in South Africa (a colleague of my brother Jeremy) to see if he could help. And he could not have been more helpful (although we did have a real giggle when he offered to loan me his Cervelo and deliver it to the SA border for us a few days later along with a mechanic…). After explaining that a Cervelo wouldn’t be able to carry our panniers he sprung to action and before we knew it, his friend who ran a bike shop in Windhoek had couriered a new bottom bracket to his friend who ran a garage in Keetmanshoop where we would meet them to fit the new parts. It’s amazing that in Namibia you can order a next day courier, that arrives on time for £5 and we are forever thankful to JP and Mannie from Mannie’s Bike Mecca in Windhoek for fixing us up and getting us back on the road with only a one-day detour!
On our way to Keetmanshoop from Helmeringhausen (there is no doubt that Namibia was a German colony with these name places!) we had to sleep halfway as it was too far for one day, even though by this point we were reunited with our beloved tarmac! James had pinpointed a hotel with a campsite around halfway so, after a long day’s ride we arrived at the Alte Kalköfen Lodge.
What we experienced next was extraordinary.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we were a little untidy on our dirty bicycles and year-old kit and perhaps we were also a little stinky but it became clear that we were not wanted.
I explained to the owner what we were doing (cycling from London to Cape Town) and whether he’d be able to give us a discount on the cost of a campsite pitch because their prices were expensive.
The owner took exception to this request and, with an arm around James’s back, he asked us to leave!
It was particularly amusing was when I asked if we could fill up our water bags because there was nothing for the next 15kms and we wouldn’t make it before sunset. He handed me one glass of water! Anyway, we found a particularly epic wild camping site beside a railway line just a stone’s throw from the lodge and camped in comfort for free.
The final stretch through Namibia was relatively smooth and incident free. Water was still sparse but we managed to fill up at farms and camp in the bush – in fact we even one night sleeping under a road bridge in a dried-up riverbed.
And before we knew it we were at the South African border. Something we’d been dreaming of for nearly a year – we were just one week away from Cape Town.
It was ironic that this was the first border where we had real issues with getting through! It turns out that James has a namesake in Jeffrey’s Bay in the Eastern Cape who hasn’t been paying his child benefits. So, after an hour or so, they were ready to take James in and refuse entry to South Africa due to an apparent child he had fathered when he would have been 14! Eventually they let us in and we were able to camp at Vioolsdrift Lodge, which is right on the border.
The Final chapter, Part Two, South Africa
Namibia was tough due to the wilderness and gravel roads but as soon as we reached South African soil, we started climbing again. This last week wasn’t going to be easy, but we knew that it was our final push towards Cape Town. Mixed emotions were everywhere – on one hand we could not wait to finish but at the same time we didn’t want our adventure to end.
Our first day started with a big climb but a shorter day in terms of mileage covering just 72km. We had planned to have a few shorter days over the final three weeks to give us some rest so we planned to stopover around the town on Steinkopf. Having gone to the supermarket to pick up supplies, we tried to scout out places to camp for the night. It wasn’t the nicest of towns so before long we’d headed to the petrol station on the way out of town to pick up some water with a the plan of heading out onto the open road to sneak through a fence and sleep behind some trees just off the road. Once again however, the lovely people in this world came to help us and before we knew it, the petrol attendant asked us to come inside as the boss wanted to see us! We were sat down and a moment later a lager than life Portuguese man and his son came in to greet us. We had a drink with them and a chat and before we knew it, they asked us if we would like to stay with them for the night as they had some spare rooms at the back of the garage. Once again overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, we were showed into our room, treated to a hot shower and cooked our food outside chatting away with our new friends. Sadly they were not up early enough for us to wish them well when we left – so if you are reading this, we really are so grateful for a comfortable night’s sleep and your company.
Onwards, and most certainly upwards from here as we pursued the hilly but very scenic terrain of the Western Cape. We were heading towards the coastline where we would spend the final few days following the Atlantic Ocean into Cape Town. Our last week was like a dream looking back on it – yes we had long, tough days in the saddle but we were so well looked after. As we headed towards the coast we made our way through some absolutely stunning landscape and met some cool people too. First up were the guys at Kamieskroon Hotel, then Hardeveld Lodge at Nuwerus – both these places are in the heartland of South Africa’s Namaqualand. This whole area, which appears beautiful but barren during most of the year, literally springs to life once each year when millions of wild flowers smother the valleys. It was an unbelievable landscape without the flowers so it must be magical in the spring.
Before we knew it, we were on the coast and on a direct line south to Cape Town. With a couple of days left, the wind changed direction to blow directly from the south. It was as if it knew that we only had two days left and wanted us to find it as hard as possible! We’d plotted a route that followed the service road alongside the railway – it might have been gravel but we were keen to do anything possible to avoid the lorries that were bombing down the main trunk road into Cape Town. There was something quite magical about watching the rolling waves crash onto the beach while still navigating off road tracks to remind us that we were still in Africa!
And then we rolled into Langebaan, our last night, 120km north of Cape Town. The incredibly lovely people at Walking on Water guesthouse had us to stay for the night in their stunning B&B. We were treated to a luxurious night’s sleep in an incredibly comfy bed and a simply delicious breakfast and great company as we prepared ourselves for the final day of our 19,000km cycle. We could not have been luckier to have such nice people to start the day with. We know we will come back to Langebaan and will most definitely be checking into Walking on Water once more!
So this was it. The day we had been dreaming about for roughly 250 cycling days but the best part of two years since we started to plan this adventure. We were excited yet anxious at the same time – we were so desperate to finish and see our friends and family, yet at the same time, the reality that the year was over, we had completed our dream and were just a couple of weeks away from real life once more, it’s hard to describe.
We were soon distracted however as we were met at the gates to the West Coast National Park by Ed Roman, the Consul General to South Africa who was going to join us for our final day. Pretty decent day “in the office” for a diplomat you might think – but I’m not sure even Ed had realised what a long day was ahead and how tough it would turn out to be! The lovely Wendy who we stayed with back in Vienna had put us in touch with the British Embassy in South Africa. It’s a long-winded story but in short, Wendy used to work for John MacGregor who used to be the British Ambassador to Austria. His wife, Dame Judith MacGregor is the current British High Commissioner To South Africa (quite the high flying couple) and Ed is in charge of all things British in Cape Town. Dame Judith was due to join us later in the day for the final 30km or so.
Knowing we had a long ride ahead, we ploughed on, with Ed gallantly leading us out and taking the slack at the front (James and I very rudely sat behind our new found wind break, rather enjoying it!) but before long we were all doing our turn in the wind which seemed to be picking up by the second. Time seemed to be whizzing past us and suddenly the idea that we might finish at 3pm was fast diminishing…but suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there it was. Table Mountain in all its glory was staring at us, and at that moment we knew we’d make it, we would soon be there.
50km outside Cape Town we spotted two mountain bikes on the other side of the road – it was Tom and Eva, the incredibly lovely couple that we first met in Ethiopia and again in Tanzania/Zambia. They had invited us to stay with them in their holiday home in Cape Town and were keen to ride into Cape Town with us. Sometimes in life you are lucky enough to meet incredible people. Tom and Eva are two of them and it was a privilege for us to have them ride into Cape Town with us. Before long we picked up Dame Judith. In only a way that a British High Commissioner could possibly greet us – full of British admiration but dressed in some very delicate ‘plimsoles’ and rather lovely jacket and beautiful scarf, with perfectly applied lipstick as well! What was more brilliant was when her driver took her bicycle out of the car, the tyres were flat! We LOVED that she clearly did not cycle yet was willing to cycle 25km with us to help us complete our journey. It was quite special.
So, with our motley crew with us, we made our way into Cape Town. By now, the clock was against us and the wind was getting stronger by the second. I was so keen to arrive in daylight so that we could have our photo taken in front of Table Mountain. Tom was a superhero and managed to cycle one handed with his other hand giving Judith a little gentle encouragement from time to time to keep her going!
Before long we were in Cape Town, agonisingly close to our finishing point at the V&A Waterfront but we had one last, somewhat amusing hurdle to overcome first. Tom and Eva had cycled over from the Waterfront that morning and had managed to take a decent short cut through the shipping yard, past the Yacht Club to get onto the road out of the city. Taking that towards the Waterfront would keep us away from the city’s busy traffic. However, when we arrived, the security guards were less than keen to let us past the barriers. Tom explained what we were doing in the hope that he might change his mind. Nope, it just wasn’t going to work. Then Dame Judith tried her luck, explaining that she is in fact the honorary president of the Yacht Club, showing her diplomatic cards etc. That didn’t do the trick either.
Meanwhile, I’m having a proper strop because we are now only 45 minutes from sunset and I wanted my photo! So, we went back to our original route which forced to do a big loop before we got to the Waterfront.
And then there we were, we could see the big yellow picture box (that frames the mountain in it) and we stopped and paused for a second, giving each other a knowing glance and a smile that here we were. It was almost like it was our own little moment before arriving. James reached out for my hand as we pedalled the final 100m. We were there. 10 months of pedaling, days that had pushed personal boundaries way beyond any expectation, both good and bad, were over.
It was surreal and as we gave each other a hug, our welcome party had spied us (they’d been waiting for around 5 hours by this point so were quite rightly enjoying some South African wine in the bar nearby!). James’s parents had flown all the way from the UK, along with my best friend Tamara. There were hugs, tears, and immense raw emotion that’s hard to put into words. A special moment for James in particular having not seen his parents for so long, you could see the relief in their smiles that he we were, safe, sound. But it wasn’t all over yet. Out of nowhere my father walked around the corner as well. Still to this day it gives me shivers thinking about how amazing it felt to see him there, because he wasn’t meant to be there, I was going to say hi to my parents in London when we got home, but he flew down from Johannesburg to see us in person. They’d prolonged their trip in Africa and were spending time with my uncles who live in Johannesburg, which is where my mother remained, spending precious time with her brothers.
We could not have asked more of our time in Cape Town. Cleverly we had not booked our flights home for three weeks after we arrived so we had time to really enjoy one of the best cities on this planet. We cannot thank Tom and Eva enough for letting us stay with them in their apartment it truly was an incredible three weeks, the only problem now is that we want to move to Cape Town!!
19,000km, 209 days on the bike, 122,375 meters climbed, over 600,000 calories burned a million smiles and possibly a million tears shed but it’s safe to say we had the adventure of a lifetime. Seeing the world by bicycle is magical. You will be guaranteed to see and experience things that you could never happen if you were not on a bicycle, we have no regrets and we will always look back on this year as the year that changed our lives.