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.
Doha International Airport, Qatar
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 Kayak.com 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 Warmshowers.org 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.
This chapel stands alone in this valley, among the olive trees. The door is unlocked.
At last, we arrive at the Sea of Corinth. This is how we imagined Greece.
Except, there isn’t anyone here. At this small community by the sea, there is no one. We lay our bikes on the beach.
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.
Apples and a church. You are never far from a church, chapel, or roadside monument in Greece.
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.
There are neighborhoods for miles, and traffic and young people and graffiti. All of this is refreshing after weeks in the abandoned countryside.
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.
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.
We cover the city to find just the right pair of shoes, and bike parts. The Sidis go home for future use.
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.
NS Aerial Pro pedals– light, strong, sealed bearings, traction pins, concave platform, orange.
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.
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.
Off to the airport, €14 for the two of us. Greece is especially civil, safe, and clean.
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.
Everyone must take selfies in front of the demented bear.
Cape Town, South Africa
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.
Mountains and the sea are never far away.
Table Mountain, as seen from Table View at night.
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.
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.
The Handle Bar is a great cycle-centric place for coffee and wi-fi. It is also a small bike shop.
Sea Point, headed south towards Cape Point.
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.
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…
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.