Into South Africa: Cape to the Karoo

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Cape Town- Table View- Wellington- Worchester- Robertson- Montagu- Anysberg Reserve- Vleiland- Gamkaskloof- Prince Albert

Squinting into the sun on the edge of a continent I hadn’t expected to visit a month ago, we depart Cape Town and the coast.  The first few days– like the first days of our first bike tour back in 2008– are spent spinning circles with our legs, waiting for this place to say something.  There is no ceremony, only a hurried effort to pass city limits and not stop at the shops on the way, for fear that we’ve forgotten something.  It will all make sense in time.  

Some hours and miles down the road, we’ve got a goal for the day and a feel for the place.  The maps make sense, the heat of the sun is real, and the anxiety of the days and months ahead turns to excitement and understanding.  

Our arrival in Cape Town is not the result of long-term planning and anticipation.  On the occasion that Lael makes major decisions, the cart often finds its way in front of the horse.  But for anyone that has jumped into icy waters or nervously asked for a date– or left on a bicycle trip– that’s often the only way.

Immediately out of Cape Town we connect to a series of sandy farm roads and local tar.  First, we must learn to ride on the left side of the road, refer to trucks as bokkies, and paved roads as tar roads.  The cape region is folded with mountains and fertile valleys in between.  Fields of finely sorted fruits and fields of black laborers waving gleefully send us into a tailspin of speculation about the politics and economy of South Africa, and all of Africa, topics which I’ve hardly ever considered.  I don’t know anything about Africa.  We agree that the wine really is excellent.  The sun is hot.

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Wine grapes are abundant through the first few days of riding.  Quality wines range in price from $2-$5.  A few cubes of ice in a glass of wine are not uncommon on a hot day.  

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We focus our efforts at discovering some of the Freedom Trail, the basis for the annual Freedom Challenge, an adventure mountain bike race across South Africa that is growing in popularity.  The format of the race is similar to something like the Divide where the clock runs non-stop, although food and lodging are provided at points along the way, usually at farmhouses or villages.  Notoriously, there are several challenging portages and frequent tall game fences or shorter livestock fencing to surmount.  Add to that the challenge of traveling across the country in June, which is winter in this country, and the requirement to travel solely with paper maps and a compass, no GPS.  

Most riders engage the Freedom Trail during the annual race, but the route can be ridden in any season, although summers may be extremely hot and winter can be cold at elevation.  However, the route is not open to tour at any time without prior arrangement.  It is not a wholly public route– making essential connections across private farms and game preserves– although it does rely heavily on public roads for most of its distance.  Contact the Freedom Challenge organization several weeks in advance to arrange a ride on the Freedom Trail.  An itinerary will be provided based upon your intended per diem mileage.  A fee is required to cover permitting, as well as food and lodging in remote areas.  It is possible to tour the route with nearly complete food and lodging arrangements, enabling ultralight travel.  Not all of these details are clear on the website.  

The Freedom Trail begins about a day’s ride out of Cape Town near Wellington with a short dirt road section followed by the famous Stettynskloof portage.  We opt to cross the mountains through historic Bain’s Kloof Pass, a gorgeous tar road.   

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As sunset, with winds howling along the face of the mountain, we shoot up a dirt track within the nature preserve.  Thus far much of the country is fenced, singed, and guarded.  Looking for flat ground, I spot a small building away from the road.  I approach slowly.  The structure is recently abandoned, apparently of some former official pedigree.  It makes fantastic cover for the night.

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Across the mountains we enter the Breede River Valley and enjoy the towns of Worcester, Robertson, and Ashton, before passing Kogmankloof poort (Cogman’s Kloof).  The Breede Valley is an especially productive wine region.

A quick lesson is Afrikaans assists map reading skills greatly.  A kloof is a valley; a vlei is a swamp; a poort is a low pass through the mountains, often a water gap; veld refers to a field, usually the wide open grasslands or brush of the karoo.  Oh, and the karoo is the great stretch of land away from the sea known for small towns, a semi-arid climate, and big sheep farms.  Karoo kitsch culture, much like the culture exploited in parts of the American midwest, seems to be in full swing.

Worcester provides the opportunity to ship some things home and finalize GPS tracks and maps.  Francois at Manic Cycles provides us a with a GPS track of a pleasant gravel route through the Breede Valley toward Ashton and Montagu, where we plan to connect with a section of the Freedom Trail. 

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Abandoned tar, thanks to Francois.  He was recently contracted to design a route for the upcoming Cape Epic mountain bike race.

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Kogmanskloof poort, between Ashton and Montagu.`

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Montagu is a pleasant town, a few days from the pace and influence of Cape Town.  The region is home to a productive industry of dried fruits and nuts.  Cape Dutch architecture melds local materials with styles imported from Holland.  Fresh white paint is the color of choice to reflect the intense sun at thirty something degrees south.

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Further afield, the land opens up in a familiar way.  Many roads inland of here are gravel, except for the main connections between towns.

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Ouberg Pass invites us with a climb immediately out of Montagu.  Keith, whom we met in town, meets us at the top of the pass to say hello.  He runs a local guide operation called Langeberg MTB.  You can call him Mr. MTB.  Mountain biking is growing in popularity in the country.

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Open roads for miles.  We camp near the road in a small gravel pit, and awake at sunrise.  It is nice to restart the pattern of rising early and riding longer days.

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The route passes high quality gravel roads, connecting to less traveled farm roads, and onto a mellow 4×4 track into the Anysberg Reserve.  

The nature reserve contains notably more wild game than elsewhere.  After recent rains, the rivers and streams attract animals of all kinds.  Most stream beds are dry most of the year.

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Cats or dogs?  A lynx, perhaps.

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A scenic doubletrack leads through the preserve, antelope springing away from the stream as we pass, including springbok, kudu, eland, and gemsbok.

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Highly folded layers give the Cape Fold Mountains their name.

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We take shade for an hour or two to enjoy lunch and fill our bottles at the ranger’s station.  We’re carrying 4 and 5 liters or water each, with two cages taped to each side of the fork.  Four cages times 800ml each is just over three liters on the fork.  Lael has a bottle mounted to her stem top cap, a simple and unique mount available from King Cage out of Durango, CO.  I’ve got two more liters under the downtube in a Klean Kanteen cradled by a Salsa Anything Cage.  

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Signs and fences are the rule in South Africa.  It is claimed that some gates are illegally placed across roadways on large tracts of land to deter livestock theft and other crimes, and to contain animals.  It is impossible to know which signs indicate private property with the legal right to pass, and which rightfully and legally exclude the right to pass on a private road through private property.  

Famously, mountain bikers in South Africa are pictured tossing their bikes over gates and game fences up to 3m high.  I’m not advocating trespassing on private property, but you will encounter fences if traveling anywhere off the main gravel roads.    

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Tubeless tires are essential for off-pavment travel.  This is the most common tree in the semi-arid regions of the Western Cape.

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Water sources come in the form of stock tanks, farmhouses, and mountain streams.  

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Gate jumping techniques improve with time.  Game fences– about 3m high– are always a challenge.

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South Africa has some of the best wide open dirt roads that I’ve seen.  They may be less densely woven than in parts of the US, where USFS and BLM offshoots often lead in every direction, but the roads are wide and nicely graded.  The riding is perfect for day long conversations side-by-side.  I call these Fargo roads, in reference to the dirt road hungry Salsa Fargo.

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Camping along the gravel roads is possible once out of town, although most people in the country will warn that it is unsafe, something you may hear in any country.  We find a quiet spot for the night below a quiet road partly concealed by a shrub.  There are fences everythwhere along the road, and I’ve been told by farmers that it shouldn’t be problem to hop a fence to camp in most places.  However, individual farmers may think otherwise.  Best to ask at a farmhouse if possible, a common practice around here.  You’re likely to get more than a patch of dirt for the night.

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It is quite possible to self-design a dirt route across the country once away from the reaches of the city. 

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Vleiland is just a little dot on the map, but surpassed us with a small community center with alibrary, and an aging store nearby.  The store stocks bread, cold Coca-Cola and Stoney ginger beer, along with a few other dusty items.  Lael looks with wide eyes and remarks that we could easily resupply in this place, despite mostly bare shelves.  Amazing what changes after a few years on the road.

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This section of the Freedom Trail from the Anysberg Reserve to Gamkaskloof and Prince Albert follows the scenic backside of the folded Swartberg Mountains.  

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Following the Freedom Trail further, past Seweweekspoort Pass, we continue on towards a famous donkey trail down into Die Hel, or The Hell.  Dutch settlers reportedly entered the idyllic valley and rarely left.  The trail is named De Leer, or The Ladder.  

The route passes into the Bosch Luys Kloof, a private nature reserve bisected by a public road.  Then, it connects to a private 4×4 track called “To Hell and Back”.  We dial the the number listed on the sign to ask permission to travel this track, which connects to De Leer.

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In about 11km, the track ends at a steep mountainside overlooking the Gamkaskloof.  The ladder into the hell begins here, but not before a quick snack .

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This connection, among others along the Freedom Trail, requires prior arrangement to pass.  I had contacted the Freedom Challenge organization several weeks prior while in Cape Town but did not receive a response, the result of a communication mishap I have come to learn.  

There have been ongoing issues with some of the landowners at the base of De Leer, culminating in a situation where event organizers cleared a mess of razor wire at the base of the trail in 2013, which had been illegally installed by landowners.  They re-opened the route just in time to enable the leaders to pass during the Freedom Challenge.  Read all about it and the resulting citizen’s arrest on the South African bike forums page, The Hub.

The ride through the Gamkaskloof is followed by a steep climb up Eland’s Pass to eventually meet the famous Swartberg Pass from the west.

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On our third day in insistently intense sun, we take every chance to submerge in cool mountain water.

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Protea is the national flower of South Africa and also the name for the national cricket team.  This is Protea eximia.

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Swartberg Pass.

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While descending the pass, a stream of sealant sprays from my rear tire.  It eventually seals, thanks to a gob of latex and dirt which fuses to the outside.  I later learn that an internal lamination is compromised, as  knobs are also tearing away from the outside of the tire.  

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Near the base of the pass, en route to Prince Albert.  A cold stream crosses the road.

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After three days in the sun, we immediately seek shade at the supermarket in Prince Albert.  A large glass bottle of Stoney ginger beer cuts the thirst.  A two rand deposit is required for the bottle, to ensure it is returned for future use.   

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In town, I check the weather, maps, and e-mail.  A glance at indicates a host in town.  I call.

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Johann is a veteran volunteer and friend of the Freedom Challenge.  He imparts knowledge of routes in the karoo and about South Africa in general.  He invites us into his home, a unique straw-bale constuction with an open floor plan.  

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There won’t be any opportunities to purchase a tire between here and Johannesburg, so we head for Oudtshoorn the next day, a century ride which crosses twice over Swartberg Pass.

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A 29×2.2″ Vittoria Saguaro tire with a tough TNT casing fits the bill.  I’ll miss the volume of the Hans Dampf, but this is a great replacement for now.  There were quite a few 2.2″ tubeless tires to choose from.  Repeatedly, the salesman tried to sell me 2.1″ Maxxis Crossmarks, one of the most popular tires in this country.  The same happened at the other shop in town, even though I introduced myself by stating that I was looking for the largest volume tire available.  “Really, the Crossmark is quite nice”, he insists.

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Back home to Prince Albert, four thousand feet up and over.  Lael loves shopping, bit only when it involves such a ride.  We spend a few more days in the vicinity of Prince Albert.  Every day. every morning, she rides to the top of the pass while I am still sleeping.

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Johann prepares a braai of lamb chops.  Do not miss the opportunity to eat lamb or sheep in this country.  It is exceptional.

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Homemade olives.

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Johann also shares with us a new dirt route across the country called the Spine of the Dragon, designed by friends David Bristow and Steve Thomas  The route is detailed in this guide entitled Riding the Dragon’s Spine, including a 58-day itinerary from Cape Point to the border of Zimbabwe, via Lesotho.  The route relies exclusively upon public thoroughfares.  The language of the guide and the associated websites is inspiring and inclusive.  GPS tracks of the entire route are available for free download from the Dragon Trax website.  In exchange, a donation to a charity of your choice is recommended.  This is an exciting find.  

Thanks for everything Johann!

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We’ll be using the Spine of the Dragon Route as a backbone for our travels in the coming weeks.  Off into the karoo toward Lesotho.  

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B/W South Africa

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Thanks to Dan Bailey for the challenge to share a series of black and white photographs, first executed via Facebook.  Each person learns something different from such an exercise.  The content and composition of the images come forward as the rainbow of colors fade.  I, like many others who spend their days outdoors, am attracted to the earth and the sky, to red dirt roads and blue hues overhead.  But there is some dishonesty in color, especially in the digital age.  Monochrome renderings highlight words and shapes, textures, and contrasts.  The dark tones, in contrast with a white background, are honest.  They are like printed words on a page.  

Dan will be publishing his first printed book on adventure photography in 2015.  He has also written a series of e-books about photography.  He lives in Anchorage, AK.      

Thanks to Jason Boucher for the inspiration to share only a limited series of images– 10 in total– from a substantial and well-documented experience.  He and nine others recently rode fatbikes away from the Western Slope along the Colorado River, over the La Sal Mountains, into the city of Moab, and back.  Jason organized the ride, and called it the Desert Ramble.  Almost every rider in the group is a formidable photographer and the collection of talent and equipment on that trip is impressive, as are the bikes.  To come away with only ten images is a reminder that brevity, and the right words, are better than an hour long speech.

Jason works for QBP in Minnesota, influencing the bikes we will ride next year.  He also writes about his experience with Olympus OMD, Pen and E series cameras on his his site Oly All the Time

And yes, Lael is carrying a jumprope.

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Αθήνα, الدوحة, Kaapstad

For immediate release:  Last seen in Greece, in the vicinity of Athens.  Tickets booked to South Africa, via Doha, Qatar.  Currently presumed riding in the Great Karoo, northeast of the Swartberg Mountains of the Western Cape region, South Africa. 

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Athens, Greece

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Doha International Airport, Qatar

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Hout Bay from Chapman’s Peak Drive, Cape Town, South Africa

Awake on a steep dirt track just below Delphi, below steep-sided mountains, above a deep valley of olives.  We’re going to Athens.  Several days prior, while waiting out rain in Karpenissi on the Bike Odyssey route, we make a plan.  Winter will arrive.  It is not here yet, and November in southern Greece may be perfect.  But the time to visit the mountains of Turkey is closing– at least by the time we get there– and if we go to Israel to ride the Holyland MTB Challenge route or part of the Israel National Trail, winter will come there as well.  And after Israel?  Egypt, Jordan?  We could wait out the winter somehow and return to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia next spring and summer, but that is many months distant.  The other option is to take a cheap flight across the Mediterranean to Cairo, for about $100 (the ferries have not been running for several years).  But arriving in Cairo seemingly leaves us many long stretches of tar to the south.  Sudan is meant to be extremely friendly.  Ethiopia has mountains, although many cyclists retell stories pf children throwing rocks.   The solution, via a well-priced flight found in a fit of shopping, is to fly to Cape Town, South Africa.  

Cape Town is at the southwestern tip of Africa, turning toward summer as the mountains of Turkey fall prey to winter.  South Africa is huge, with deserts ad mountains and the sea.  The Freedom Trail beckons, offering over 1000 miles of backcountry riding and navigation, and a few famous overland traverses.  Joe Cruz and Jill Homer both rode across South Africa on this route last June.  Logan and Virginia toured South Africa and Lesotho en route to points further north, and the photos and stories they shared are motivating.  Lael has been talking about going to Africa for years, either something that would have never happened or something that would happen in a spontaneous decision.  It proves to be the latter, and even so, South Africa isn’t really Africa, they say.  We’ll get there.

Our route from Delphi to Athens traces dirt roads near the shores of the Sea of Corinth.  We camp on the beach, swim in the sea, and stay cool in the shade.  It is hard to leave this land when everything is so perfect, but we know we’ve made a good decision.  Haven’t we?  There is only one way to know.  

Like much of the rest of rural Greece, there is almost no one on this coastline.  

In Athens, our bikes are improved for many more months of travel.  Lael gets a new drivetrain and sends her Sidis home in trade for a pair of platform pedals.  We scout shoe stores and bike shops across this city of 5 million.  George, who originally suggested the Bike Odyssey route to us was kind enough to host us for several days.  Friends of a friend of a friend in Santa Fe also hosted us as we packed our bikes into boxes in the days before our flight– thanks Alex and Fontina.  We also camped for a few nights at the top of a hill in a little used park on the outskirts of town.  In over a week in Athens, we never made it to visit the Acropolis, but we sat in cafes and navigated traffic and visited dozens of small shops.  We like Athens.  Half the country lives here, including youth and families, and there are diverse neighborhoods.  Times are still tough in Greece, but there are jobs here, technically.  Rent is cheap.  There are people our age, which is nice.  There are ruins older than anything in America, crumbling alongside the city’s metro tracks.  

We take an extension of the Athens Metro to the airport, which allows bikes during all hours of the day for no charge.  At the airport, the Qatar Airlines insists that we will not be allowed to enter South Africa without a return or onward flight.  We discuss and argue for some time; I insist we will cycle out of the country in three months time.  They are skeptical.  We sign an indemnity form releasing them from liability in case we are not allowed in the country. 

Our plane lands at the brand new airport in Doha, Qatar.  It is everything you would expect, including high-end shopping, rich Qatari men in traditional dress, a Maclaren parked near a Lexus in the main forum.  Apple computers are fixed to stations for public use.  Seemingly low-paid airport employees have wide eyes for the spectacle of it all as they slowly push dust brooms in the middle of the night.  There is no place to get a beer, although the airport is the only official importer of pork and alcohol into the Muslim country.  We buy salt and vinegar chips and an expensive soda from the newstand.  Lael lays down her new foam sleeping mat across from the Burberry store, next to the 24-hour complimentary child care center.  We sleep on and off for several hours under bight fluorescent lights.  The air is stagnant.

In Cape Town, we deboard the plane in a corridor lined with public advertisements for touristic attractionss in the cape.  Two large-scale mountain bikers are smiling as they ride out of the wall on top-shelf full-suspension XC bikes.  I’ve prepared myself for customs.  All I get is a friendly smile and a stamp.  No hassle.  No return or onward ticket.  

Cape Town is familiar.  The roads are wide with sidewalks and stop lights.  Much of the city is newer, and the old parts aren’t that old.  People shop– most of them– at the Pick n Pay or the Shoprite or the Checker’s, full-size supermarkets full of deals and stuff.  There are fat people and homeless people and accents and faces from all over.  It feels like home.

We are welcomed at the airport by Juliet, our host.  She and her family spent three months touring across Europe this summer, with children aged 8, 12, and 14.  When asked about their favorite part of their tour across Europe, the children unanimously indicate the time spent with family in Germany, when they didn’t have to cycle.  Baked goods and internet and flat cycle paths were second favorite features along the way.  We stayed in the the children’s playhouse in the back yard, affectionately known as the “dollhouse”.  We finalized bike-related matters, loaded maps and tracks to the GPS, and for some time, waited for something in the mail that didn’t arrive due to a postal strike.  We make a three day tour around the southern cape region while waiting.  Immediately apparent are the ever-present fences, security agents, and prohibitive signage, but the coast is beautiful.  It feels like home.

Below Delphi, Greece.

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This chapel stands alone in this valley, among the olive trees.  The door is unlocked.

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At last, we arrive at the Sea of Corinth.  This is how we imagined Greece.

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Except, there isn’t anyone here.  At this small community by the sea, there is no one.  We lay our bikes on the beach.

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Several mountains lay in our path.  We choose a series of small dirt roads, and one steep hike-a-bike between power line service roads.  


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Apples and a church.  You are never far from a church, chapel, or roadside monument in Greece.

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We approach Athens from the backside, taking a ferry to the nearby island of Salamina for $0.75.  This avoids some busy corridors leading into town.

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Athens, Greece

There are neighborhoods for miles, and traffic and young people and graffiti.  All of this is refreshing after weeks in the abandoned countryside.

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We are stopped by a procession of young people in a dilapidated-but-changing neighborhood of hip cafes and small groceries and old stone storehouses near the railroad tracks.   

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We’re not certain of the origin of the festivities, but the drumming goes on for hours.  Later in the evening, the crown moves several blocks away, facing the back of a truck that has been readied for the party.  Electrified Greek music, much like music elsewhere in the Balkans, is sultry and rhythmic and charming, if a little quaint.  Everyone is loaded with colored powder, contained in little cloth packages tied with string. 

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We cover the city to find just the right pair of shoes, and bike parts.  The Sidis go home for future use.  

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Tsirikos Bikes is well-euqipped as they are the front end of a prominent online retail operation in Greece.  They have all kinds of parts in stock, including lots of cheap Shimano stuff.  We buy a $6 chain, and an $8 bottom bracket for Lael’s bike.  The cassette is $11.  The bike inside are now cheap, with a variety of unusual models.

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NS Aerial Pro pedals– light, strong, sealed bearings, traction pins, concave platform, orange.

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The new sleeping pad is $5 and “Great for tourist”, including alpine slalom skiing and daiquiri sipping on the beach.  Bikepacking is somewhere on the list.  

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Also in the mail is a new framebag from Revelate Designs.  Eric is working on a series of designs for long-distance cyclists to endure many months of hard use.  Zippers are the weakest part of any framebag or garment.  We’re both using experimental designs: mine has a zipperless main compartment while Lael’s has some unique features to limit the strain on the zipper.  She’s been tasked with abusing the zips.  Apples and bottles of wine will be stuffed in there soon enough.  Despite her looks, she’s the ultimate zipper killer.  

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Off to the airport, €14 for the two of us.  Greece is especially civil, safe, and clean.

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Doha, Qatar

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Exchange just enough currency to buy a bag of chips and a soda, not quite enough for a watch or a luxury car, but they are also for sale.  Shopping boutiques are open all night.  There are few windows in the airport.  I spend the night reading about Qatar, which is strange and fascinating.  

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Everyone must take selfies in front of the demented bear.

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Cape Town, South Africa

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Cape Town is busy and colorful and much like home.  The air is warm and the wind never ends.  Wines are abundant and excellent, and cheap, especially the sauvignon blanc which is celebrated by a local festival the weekend of our arrival.  Cycling is popular, assuming you like narrow-tire XC mountain bikes and riding on gravel roads, mostly.  Every talks about the Cape Argus and the Cape Epic.  We’re clued into more unusual events like the Freedom Challenge and the Trans-Afrika.  Mountain biking is the new golf, they say.

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Mountains and the sea are never far away.

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Table Mountain, as seen from Table View at night.

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From our temporary residence in Table View, we follow a brand new bike path into the city, which follows the new MyCiti bus line a distance of about 20km.  The city is a very nice place to ride.  Despite a population in the millions, the center of Cape Town is not especially large.  Individual communities radiate outward in all directions from the center, for many miles, yet are officially considered part of Cape Town.

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Full suspension XC race bikes are the flavor of the day, while 29″ tires average between 1.9″-2.1″ inches.  Tires up to 2.2″ inches are available in shops, while I spotted a 2.3″ Specialized Purgatory at Revolution Cycles in Cape Town.  Tubeless tires, tape, valves, repair kits, and sealant are all common.  I’ve never seen so much tubeless tech, not even in Arizona.  

We buy a grip of 800ml bottles and cages to tape to our forks.  We plan to have 4-5L of water per bike.

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The Handle Bar is a great cycle-centric place for coffee and wi-fi.  It is also a small bike shop.

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Sea Point, headed south towards Cape Point.

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Chapman’s Peak Drive is a famous road ride in the area along the coast.  We spend a few days touring the cape while waiting for some mail.  The area is gorgeous, but we look forward to leaving the city behind.  Everything is fenced, signed, and guarded.  South Africa has extreme poverty aside much wealth.  Many blacks live in poverty and many whites live like Europeans and Americans.  There are exceptions, but there are clear patterns.  There is still much mistrust and misunderstanding between people.  Everyone warns us to be careful never to leave our bikes, and to “watch our backs” .  I’m still trying to decipher which are urban problems and rural problems; which are real problems and which are perceived problems.

South Africans are exceptionally friendly.  They love bikes.  

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Simon’s Town, near Cape Point.  We choose not to visit the actual point to avoid the $10 charge to enter the preserve.  Fences and guards and fees and signs…

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Soon, we’ll be out of the city and off to ride a version of the Freedom Trail across South Africa.  The route is notoriously challenged by fences and traversing permits, long stretches without food and water, and navigational challenges which make necessary connections not possible by road.  However, much of the route is composed of motorable roads.  Since the route was first developed in 2004, most riders have raced and toured the route during the Freedom Challenge, which takes place in June.  Very little information exists about a self-made tour on the route, although the website has most everything you need including a series of 80+ detailed maps sections and a complete route narrative.  We hope to bring back some valuable information about the route.

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