Words & Photos: Sean Fraenkel
Unfit and unprepared, I cycled from Jeffreys to Cape Town, a distance of approximately 750 km, towing a surfboard, fishing rod, and camping gear. I went in search of adventure, but experienced more than I’d hoped for.
I crave adventure, like a lost explorer in the Sahara craves water. I needed one badly, but it had to combine my three passions: surfing, cycling, and fishing. After some deep thought, I had my ‘Eureka’ moment: cycle from Jeffreys Bay to Cape Town. Behind my bicycle, I towed a two-wheeled trailer, camping gear, fishing rod, and surfboard. I’m not a streamlined cyclist and carry more spare tyres around my waist than on my trailer. Plus, the idea of towing 30 kg behind my bicycle left me feeling rather nervous, but eager nonetheless. Tracy, my girlfriend, gave me a lift to Cristal Cove Backpackers in Jeffreys Bay, a whisper away from the world-class surf break, Supertubes. The place has soul. I could feel it in the driftwood furniture that owner Gary had crafted, as well as in the welcoming vibe and laid-back tunes emanating from the bar. We shared a spacious room, at affordable rates, before Tracy left me to my own devices. The journey had almost begun. But first, a brief sidetrack.
Early the next morning, with camera in hand, I bolted down to the beach along a creaking wooden path. I wanted to get a sunrise photo and check if there was any surf. Instead, a long-haired, tattooed local named Frank gave me some fishing tackle and as the sun exploded over the horizon, I found myself spinning next to my new friend in halo of golden light. I started my cycle tour the following day, pedalling out of Jeffreys Bay along the R102, which runs more or less parallel to the N2, but has far less traffic. The odd herd of cattle interrupted my rhythmic pedal strokes and deep breathing. In response to a feeble moo of my own, the cows raised their heads and stared at me quizzically, with their big brown eyes. After depositing fresh fertiliser on the road (and possibly on my tyres), they ambled out of my path, in a way that only a cow can amble when they know all life has in store for them is the monotonous chewing of grass.
Biting off more than I could chew, I tackled the 108 km from Jeffrey's to Storms River with gusto, as I had to impress three Dutch girls (who I had met upon my arrival in Jeffreys Bay and were waiting for me in Storms River), with my cycling ability. Clearly inspired by my exploits, the girls invited me on a mini-adventure of their own; we would meet up again in Storms River and go bungee jumping together. Exhausted after 12 hours in the saddle, I half crawled to the shower with all my kit on at Tsitsikamma Backpackers. After a long soak, I covered my unmentionables in a thick layer of camphor cream to help soothe the severe saddle sores that had left me with a banger and mash instead of a vienna and beans. Yang, a shy and unremarkable looking Chinese guy, joined me on my patch of grass. He said that, besides summiting Everest, he’d cycled 5,000km from Beijing to Tibet in one month. Do the math: That’s around 166 km per day. It did a bit of damage to my heroic self-esteem.
While waiting for the Dutch girls to arrive the following day, I decided to take it easy because I was in so much pain. To minimise the agony, I had to spread my feet wide apart and waddle, which made me look like a mentally incapacitated duck, so I declined any invites to go hiking in the forest surrounding Storms River. The next morning, Sophie, Sabien, Caroline, and I squeezed into their small car. During the drive to Bloukrans Bridge, the world’s highest bungee jump (216 metres), our anxiety and tension was palpable. Nervous chatter, false bravado, and sweaty palms kept us company until we each took our turn to spread our arms crucifixion style and take a leap of faith from the platform under the bridge.
What a rush! Heart hammering and pulse racing, the ground screamed towards me in a wind-blasted blur. While I dangled like a yoyo by my feet, paralysed by fear and the bitter taste of adrenalin lingering in my mouth, I prayed that I would not slip out of my bindings. Back in the vertical position, emotionally drained, I couldn’t help but contemplate going again. When I left the following morning, I had my own send-off committee. The three girls waved a fond bon voyage as I put my head down, grimaced, and got my tyres rolling. If you are travelling by vehicle, you need to stick to the N2 until after Bloukrans Bridge, due to the Bloukrans Pass on the R102 being closed to traffic. As I was on my bicycle, I was able to sneak through the barrier.
The Bloukrans Pass starts high up on both sides and dips into a green valley. The winding descent, which goes through a forest of yellowwood and stinkwood trees covered with creeping saffron, is a fresh breath for the soul. Lichen, like delicate lingerie, hugs the foot of these large trees, while tree ferns, nature’s diaphanous petticoat, hid them from view as I coasted past. The tannin-stained streams and lush green foliage made the steep climb out worth every hard-earned pedal.
Nature’s Valley is at the foot of the Groot Rivier Pass. Fuelling my adrenalin-seeking gremlin, I hit 70 km/h free wheeling down the twisting road into the small holiday village below. SANParks has a quiet campsite with some huts hidden under the trees right on the river, but I preferred to stay closer to the beach. The Wood B&B was fully booked, but they had a large flat at the back, which they gave to me for R50 a night, if I slept on my camping mat. Sold! Nature’s Valley has one small shop that sells the bare minimum at inflated prices. I bought some red bait and tried to do some fishing, which proved a bit tricky with my small rod and rolling surf. Two Labradors provided some entertainment; hunting in the rock pools, they would stand dead still and then pounce at the small fish darting between their legs. I think they had far more luck than I did.
An easy-to-surf wave that peeled off towards the left and a three-foot swell supplied beautiful, clean walls to carve quick turns on. Just as the sun kissed the hill behind the shore, a shark glided in the face of a wave as I was paddling back out. I have no clue what type of shark it was. Natural instinct took over; flight instead of fright kicked in and paddling like a frantic, epileptic disco dancer, I aquaplaned back to shore.
Back on my bike, I suffered in a strong headwind the following morning as I pushed for Plettenberg Bay. I love the long open road on a bicycle. The speed at which you travel gives you enough time to absorb your surroundings and contemplate deep, philosophical questions. In my case, “I wonder when I should stop for a snack,” followed by, “I wonder what I will have for lunch,” and ultimately, “I wonder what’s for dinner?”
For more quiet contemplation, Stone Cottage Boutique Backpackers is an idyllic setting with a big wooden deck, jacuzzi, and open ocean view. Steeped in history, it was one of the first holiday homes in Plett. Built in 1910, it remains in the family today. Evan Haussmann, a travel writer and photographer, was the only other guest, so we decided to check out the nightlife.
The Market on Main Street, a collection of small food stalls with common seating in the middle, has live music on Fridays. It has an open-air feel to it and was packed when we got there. You are permitted to bring your own beer, as no alcohol is sold there. A tasty bite from Pizza Khaya was worth the stop. After attempting some pub-crawling, we soon concluded that you can expect more nightlife in a sealed tomb than in Plett, out of season, and barring the handful of underage teenagers who milled about. Out of boredom, our two-man party consumed excessive quantities of tequila, which resulted in a slow start the next morning. After an oily breakfast, plus handfuls of painkillers and cups of thick coffee, I reluctantly swerved and swayed my way to a sea-blown camp spot, 56 km away.
Buffels Bay, home to 17 permanent residents and a cluster of shuttered holiday homes, has two caravan parks. I opted for the one in town, due to its proximity to the surf, shop, and restaurant. It’s one of those rare campsites where you can literally fish from your tent. The downside, however, is that there is little shelter from the elements. I soon realised that staying at a backpacker is cheaper than staying at a caravan park if you’re on your own. However, I did manage to negotiate pensioner’s rates, as I thought R250 was ridiculous for my one-man tent.
A strong south-easter buffeted my bright yellow tent most of the evening. Hatching early from my synthetic cocoon, metamorphosed into a sleep-deprived troll, I greeted an eccentric elderly gentleman, who, intrigued by my travel rig, had hobbled up to my tent. He had bandy legs and an ostentatious white moustache that flamboyantly curled over his cheeks. With his head cocked to the side, exposing a hearing device, he greeted me with a stout handshake and declared his name, Pieter Coetzee, in a manner of a proud army general. I almost felt compelled to stand to attention, salute, and bark back, "Tent ready for inspection, Sir!”
He quizzed me enthusiastically regarding my mode of transport and the odd arrangement I was towing. He beamed at my tail, clearly a sympathetic soul who has had many adventures of his own. With a sparkle in his eyes and a bounce (albeit bent over) in his step, he wished me luck and went about his way.
Not one to dawdle, I made my way to Afrovibe Backpackers in Sedgefield straight after my morning surf. This backpacker is ideally positioned right next to the beach and adjacent to the PiliPili Bar and Restaurant. What more could I ask for? At the entrance to the restaurant, an amusing sign read, ‘Soup of the day, Tequila’.
Fortunately, Victoria Bay was only 32 km away. It is home to another world-class point break that peels off to the right, with rides of up to 150 m long. Surfing heaven! According to magicseaweed.com, big surf would be arriving in three days. Surfari Backpackers, a luxurious establishment, sits on top of an extremely steep hill just above Vic Bay. There was no chance of me cycling up this road. It’s either walking or thumbing my way to and from the beach. I chose the latter.
The three-day idle wait was worth it. Eight-foot bombs eventually exploded off the rocky point and screamed down the line towards the beach. The face of the wave was a bit choppy, thanks to cross-offshore winds. A sketchy take-off zone sucked dry and exposed bare barnacled rocks less than a metre to my left before the lip grabbed me and flung me down a wall of pure liquid hedonism.
The worst day on my bicycle was from Mossel Bay to Riversdale. I suffered 85 out of the 95 km in a relentless headwind. To take my mind off the burning in my legs, I would sing along to my iPod. This mind-over-matter technique inadvertently had the additional benefit of supplementing my protein intake, as my open mouth seemed to attract handfuls of flying bugs. The alternative being that even six-legged creatures would sacrifice themselves to shut me up.
Besides fighting the elements, I had relatively smooth sailing until my last day, as I was plagued with stomach cramps and flat tyres. My first puncture happened when I hit a cat-eye at 55km/h on Sir Lowry's Pass. Luckily, I didn’t have my trailer for the last two days, as my girlfriend had offered vehicle support from Swellendam. The summit of the pass is 420 m above sea level. On a clear day, you can look across the Cape Flats and see the South Peninsula. The crisp, cold water of False Bay looked extremely inviting as I dirtied my hands repairing my damaged tube.
My second deflated tyre occurred after I crashed into a road works sign that was in the middle of the shoulder just outside Gordon’s Bay. I had my head down and was mesmerised by the rolling tar, and didn’t bother to look up for some time. This sign was so blatantly visible that a blind man on the dark side of the moon would not have missed it. My knee instantly swelled to the size of a mini soccer ball. I was now out of 26-inch tubes and repair kits, and had to force a 20-inch tube (used on my trailer wheels) around my bicycle rim. After some swearing and bloody knuckles, I managed to fit the tube.
My third and last flat in front of Mitchells Plain nearly broke me; with a swollen knee, bruised ribs, and bloody knuckles, I was quickly losing my cool as I forced the undersized tube around my rim. Without the trailer, I cycled the 110km from Swellendam to Caledon in under five hours. My final 118 km from Caledon to Glen Cairn, a suburb between Simon’s Town and Fish Hoek, took me over eight hours to complete.
Somewhat broken but not beat, I arrived home to the excited bark of my two Jack Russells. The journey hadn’t been what most long-distance cyclists would consider epic. But, for a brief period, I’d become my childhood hero; an adventurer exploring new horizons in search of hidden treasure. The treasure? My ability to do it.
The free Coast to Coast and Alternative Route pocket guides, available at most budget lodgings, proved invaluable to planning my overnight stays.
Get accurate wave forecasts for your local surf spot on www.magicseaweed.com or www.wavescape.co.za
Essential to preventing muscle injury is a proper bike set-up. Visit Trail and Tar in Tokai - www.trailandtar.co.za
My favourite stops:
Best vibe: Cristal Cove Backpacker, Jeffreys Bay - www.cristalcove.co.za
Best view: Stone Cottage Backpacker’s, Plettenberg Bay www.stonecottage.co.za
Best surf: Surfari Backpackers, Victoria Bay - www.vicbaysurfari.co.za
Best burger: Marilyn’s 60s Diner, Storm’s River
Best pizza: Pizza Khaya, Plettenberg Bay
Checkpoints where I spent a night or more:
Jeffreys Bay - Storms River (108 km)
Storms River – Nature’s Valley (48 km)
Nature’s Valley – Plettenberg Bay (47 km)
Plettenberg Bay – Buffels Bay (56 km)
Buffels Bay – Sedgefield (26 km)
Sedgefield – Victoria Bay (32 km)
Victoria Bay – Mossel Bay (56 km)
Mossel Bay – Riversdale (95 km)
Riversdale – Swellendam (86 km)
Swellendam – Caledon (110 km)
Caledon – Glen Cairn (118 km)
For more adventure and travel writing, follow Sean on www.seanfraenkel.com