This route is a composite from the Dragon Trax website and our own adventure compass, connecting the border of Lesotho at Monantsa Pass through Swaziland at Bulembu, passing through part of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga Provinces in South Africa. The riding mainly consists of wide open gravel roads, railroad service roads, and forest roads, as well as some tar.
Monantsa Pass (Lesotho/RSA)- Phuthaditjhaba- Kestell- Aberfeldy- Harrismith- Colling’s Pass- Elandslagte- Wasbank- Dundee- Utrecht- Knight’s Pass- Paulpietersburg- Piet Retief- Emahlatini Border (RSA/Swaziland)- Mankayane- Lusutfu River- Bhunya- Thembisa- Ngwenya- Maguga Dam- Pigg’s Peak Gold Mine- Ntabeni River- Bulembu- Josephdal Border (Swaziland/RSA)
Only a week ago, I was happy to be leaving South Africa for Lesotho. But we’re pleased to be back. We look forward to a proper shower, an internet connection, and vetkoeks. The thing we crave most is the mental space to relax. I’ve never considered myself an especially private person– and I’m not in my own culture, I don’t think– but Lesotho has shown me how much personal privacy we have built into our lives.
In time, South Africa is less and less challenging. And while we are still learning and questioning and understanding, we begin an unconscious process of acceptance. We know what we will find in local shops and what we like to eat. We know how and where to find places to camp or who to ask. We know which tar roads might have wide shoulders, which will have little traffic, and that the endless gravel roads are our home. That word– “home”– is something which comes up infrequently while on the road. It is only through the impassioned love of a place, such as in Albania, or with time that we might think of a place as home. Here, it is time which has worked to make us feel this way. That, and the shared cultural elements which make South Africa so much like America. I have to laugh when South Africans ask knowingly about America, to point at the faults which Hollywood and media have so effectively spread to their shores. Yes, we eat a lot of junk food and drive big cars and get fat. It’s true.
“But so do South Africans”, I say.
“Is it?”, which is the universal response for anything agreeable or disagreeable in South Africa. Lean you head to the side, and ask calmly, “is it?” It means as much or as little as “really”, which is as much a habit in America as “is it” is in South Africa. But to me, the accent which Afrikaners impart on English is beautiful and charming. Is it?
We define newly discovered cultural similarities daily.
Coming from Lesotho, we shoot north to Kestell to camp for a night at the Karma Backpackers.
Vintage South Africana is everywhere in these old towns, which reminds me of the American West and the history of westward migration. Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony to settle vast tracts of land in the interior, c. 1830-1840. Many people traveled overland by covered wagon into sometimes challenging climates, to face attacks by the displaced or defensive native people, to eventually establish farms and communities such as the capitol city Pretoria, named for Andries Pretorius.
Vetkoek, literally meaning fat cake, is common in small town shops. The fried dough is like an unsweetened donut, and at 1 rand apiece, makes an affordable packable snack. Lael puts salt on everything.
The Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, or the Dutch Reformed Church, is a feature in many South African towns, although Anglican churches are also common. Toyota trucks are a favorite of South African farmers. Ford has recently entered the market. Other Asian brands such as Mahindra, Isuzu, and Nissan are present to a lesser degree, as a lower priced alternate to the revered Toyota.
The greeting of wide open roads and rolling topography is refreshing after our time in Lesotho. Each time we leave a country and return, it feels more and more like home.
Stretch the legs.
This is a continuation of the Drakensberg, which are featured more prominently to the north and the south.
This is the kind of riding, much like the karoo, that makes the Dragon’s Spine route like the Great Divide.
Dropping off the edge of the Escarpment, from 5000ft+down to about 2000ft. Trees, heat, and humidity are more abundant down low.
The Dragon’s Spine route takes us along the railroad tracks from Elandslaagte to Wasbank, a once-great town that is now an impoverished shadow of its past. Trees are growing through the windows of the old train station. A hotel is advertised, now home to a single pool table and a bottle shop. Some old towns are charming, but not Wasbank. We are grateful to meet a shop owner who calls his parents, who offer us a place to put our tent for the night. Inevitably, they invite us inside, feed us a traditional Indian meal, and offer showers and a bed. Their family has owned the petrol station in town for many years.
This is not the first time we’ve ridden RR lines in South Africa, but it cements the concept. Most RR service roads are ungated and seem to be pretty reliable routes to travel by bike, although interruptions in continuity are possible, which add to the adventure.
Dundee, where we are interviewed by the local newspaper, the Northern KwaZulu-Natal Courier.
We speak with two very nice young woman, a reporter and a photographer, and the next week they publish an article titled “Living young, wild and free from Alaska”.
Everyone describes the failing school systems in South Africa. Most people have to pay to go to school, and options for high-priced education is available to those that can afford it. The poorest children can attend school for free, and there are food programs as well. I’m not certain of the quality of a free education in South Africa. I’ve met some promising youth, but a lot of young people are slipping through the cracks.
RR lines are awesome in South Africa! Johann, our host from Prince Albert, described a trip he made many years ago following RR lines for a great distance across the country. We’ve only seen freight lines thus far.
Railroads, like canals, show you life away from tar roads. We meet a farming family for the night. We tour the farm and the irrigation system, which provides just enough water to grow maize in this semi-arid climate. They prepare a braai.
Near Utrecht, the only town in South Africa within a game reserve.
Riding the RR line toward Piet Retief, and Swaziland.
The quantity of productive timberlands increase around us, all the way across the border.
We immediately notice the nice roadside bus stops. The absence of now-familiar South African economic inequality is obvious. That is, people are more uniformly poor in Swaziland, which to us, makes the county feel wealthier. There is a calm to the country. There are few fences. People smile. People speak English really well, and have ideas and opinions. These are our first impressions.
That’s how you source local food.
As in Lesotho, Swaziland is also the beneficiary of foreign aid. New schools are a common project, as are improved toilets and rainwater catchment systems for the schools.
The timber industry is healthy in the mountainous west of Swaziland. In the eastern lowlands, sugar cane and bananas are the main production crops. Agriculture and other industries are partly organized through the monarchy.
Eucalyptus is a common hardwood resource. It appears to be fast growing, resulting in tall, straight pole-sized trees
Pines produce pulp and other low grade products such as fencing and palettes.
The Coca Cola Company dominates the market in South Africa. This cold grape-flavored Fanta is 40 rand, or about $0.35. The currency in Swaziland is also fixed against the South African rand, as in Lesotho.
Beer and soda sold in both Lesotho and Swaziland is made in country, licensed from the South African parent company.
No need for coins, I watch these kids play round after round of ‘The King of Fighters” by coaxing the tines of a plastic fork into the coin slot. This is outside a rural shop.
Timber mill and timberlands.
Shoot me! The kids are relaxed and kind, a little less maniacal than in Lesotho. I really enjoyed this group.
While taking a series of obligatory portraits, I try to organize a group photo before leaving. They stop me as I begin packing up, “you must shoot him”.
They are referring to this young boy, who has been slowly making his way from down the road ever since I arrived. All the other children quickly arrived at the road. It just took him a little longer.
Mostly, the children don’t treat him any differently.
Summer nights are nice, as long as the heat sets with the sun.
Tracing the western border of Swaziland on our brief tour of the diminutive kingdom, we camp near Ngwenya for the night.
Sunday night party outside the General Dealer and bottle shop. This bar is bumping tunes to a small crowd of men, children, and older woman. It is not uncommon to hear Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album in between classic African artists and more modern electro-pop. The song “Koze Kuse” by DJ Merlon featuring Mondli Ngcobo is the most popular song in South Africa right now, if the stereos of local taxis are any indication. The music video captures some classic South African scenes.
Steps Over Swaziland, a film project advertised on the side of the road by this LP-sized sign.
Swaziland claims the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world. Public service announcements, free public health services, and free condoms are common.
Diving back into the Timberlands on a series of tracks in the area near Pigg’s Peak. This northwestern part of the country is prime for explorations, folded with mountains and laced with logging roads. There are several MTB races in the area, mostly attracting South African riders.
This route connects us back to the border of South Africa at Bulembu, now famous as the home of the Bulembu Emasi dairy. Called mass, amasi or emasi, this cultured milk has a bright fresh yogurt taste, much like the yogurts we enjoy in Eastern Europe. It is the best energy food in South Africa (sorry Coca Cola and Nik Naks).
Bulembu is an old mining town revitalized by the dairy and a small stream of tourism. Asbestos was once shuttled to Barberton, South Africa by an aerial cableway (like an alpine gondola), a distance of over 20km through very mountainous terrain.
Back in South Africa. While the roads turns to tar across the border, the ride from Bulembu to Barberton is epic. The road rides high ridgelines until a blazing fast descent drops us into Barberton, 3000ft below.
The road is punctuated by geology lessons, funded by the state. Called the Geotrail Route, the new roadside facilities don’t seem to get much use. The road is deserted.
This academic paper provides a fascinating overview of the mining history in this region, with maps and images. This is one of the most significant gold mining regions in South Africa.
Descending to Barberton, we once again meet hot and humid weather, as well as mangoes and bananas. We’re about a week away from the border of Zimbabwe, and the end of our ride across South Africa.