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Karoo's Edge © Brad Zembic

Embraced by a Nation: A Canadian's Bicycle Tour of South Africa

By Brad Zembic

Weaver's Nest © Brad Zembic
Weaver's Nest in the Karoo © Brad Zembic

I've always felt an inexplicable bond with South Africa because of its wide-open spaces, its wildlife, and its passionate people, and every year, tired of another harsh Canadian winter, I rush to the nearest travel agency to buy an airline ticket to the country where I feel particularly at home. It's become, for me, a sort of migration, like animals following the distant sound of thunder. I light-heartedly refer to my irrepressible draw to that part of the world as Africanitis, a magnificent disease whose symptoms are well known to my friends and colleagues: incessant talk about everything from Kalahari sunsets to Xhosa manhood rituals, and endless hours on the Internet trying to find the best photograph of South Africa to wallpaper my computer screen with.

Recently, I decided to deepen my relationship with South Africa by travelling as unhurriedly as the early Dutch settlers must have during The Great Trek, visiting areas of the country that lay well off the beaten path. I had previously bicycled the length of my own nation and was well prepared, I imagined, to tackle the immense, sparsely-occupied plain known as the Karoo, an area whose heat, I was told tongue-in-cheek, would burn the wool off a sheep.

night ride in the karoo © Brad Zembic
Night Ride in the Karoo © Brad Zembic

Arriving in South Africa was like landing in a dream. The veld appeared lush after a spring rain, and streets everywhere were mauve with fallen jacaranda blossoms, making me feel as if I'd just missed a wedding. After a week of cycling through Guateng and the fallow fields of the Free State, I crossed into an area that was neither colourful nor promising of bounty. The landscape around me became dry, with thorn trees and clumps of golden grass clinging to the rocky earth. Places to get food and water appeared, on my map, unreasonably distant, and visions of sun-bleached bones lying next to a rusted bicycle with a faded Canadian flag swirled before me.

On a small gravel road somewhere between Douglas and Hopetown, a mere dot on the edge of the Karoo, I passed a lonely-looking farmhouse with a lawn as green as an Irish heath. The sky was cloudless and the air heavy with afternoon heat. A kilometre beyond the house, the lower gears on my bicycle wouldn't shift, and I discovered my chain hanging like a necklace from the rear changer. I'd lost a jockey wheel. I searched for two hours for the little rubber piece, without which I'd be left with only five upper gears and a struggle to reach any place with a repair shop. Unsuccessful, I sat in the shade of a leafy kareeboom and, with the stench of a nearby rabbit carcass riding toward me on the hot breeze, tucked into a cheese and vegetable pie before limping off in the direction of Hopetown.

karoo estates © Brad Zembic
Karoo Estates © Brad Zembic

Caution suggested I refill my water bottles. Hopetown was still forty kilometres away, and there was no guarantee I wouldn't experience some other kind of breakdown and need to spend a night in the open veld. This was not a scenario I was averse to, since one of my purposes for travelling across South Africa by bicycle was to enjoy the serenity of its vast stretches of uncultivated land. I saw a forced night under the glittering stars of the Northern Cape as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience, though the softer side of my nature rooted for a comfortable bed and a hearty meal in more civilised quarters.

I rode back to the farmhouse with the lovely, green lawn and was greeted by a garrulous woman, whose daughter and friend—clad in bathing suits—bolted, like springbok, to escape my detection. My arrival by bicycle at this out-of-the-way estate was treated as a matter of course. Other cyclists, the woman reported, had used the road and had also stopped in for water. I was offered glasses-full of cold orange drink and a late lunch before being introduced to a neighbour who, along with her husband, owns a nearby game ranch that caters to the wildlife interests of overseas tourists.

For the next hour, or so, my new friends schemed ways to help me along my way. Kenneth telephoned his father in Kimberly to see if he could obtain the missing bike piece for me, then offered to transplant the jockey wheel from his own bicycle. Anna Marie recommended I hitch a ride into Kimberly with her the following morning to look for a decent bicycle shop; I could stay with her and her family until the repairs were done. What had been a mere request for water suddenly became a community effort to save the Canadian cyclist, and I was touched by everyone's concern and the lengths they were willing to go to help a stranger.

Not Exactly a Tim Hortons © Brad Zembic
Not Exactly a Tim Hortons © Brad Zembic

I did procure a replacement jockey wheel from yet more helpful people in Kimberly, and for two days afterward, continued to enjoy a break from cycling at Anna Marie's game ranch, Fort Richmond, with its tranquillity, blue skies and endless vista of the veld – things which were among my reasons for travelling South Africa's back roads in the first place. On my final day, my hosts departed for a two-week holiday on the east coast, leaving me with the house keys and instructions to lock the door whenever I should decide to leave.

That evening, as I walked down a sandy road that led deep into the veld, I reflected on my trip – the places I'd seen and the friendly people I'd encountered. The silvery light of a full moon shone brilliantly, even as the setting sun brushed the horizon with soft rose and lemony hues. Zebra and wildebeest galloped away as I approached, leaving clouds of dust lingering spirit-like in the air. South Africa, I thought, is filled with beauty and its people are hospitable beyond imagining. It's believed South Africa is the cradle of humankind. Perhaps that's the reason I'm so at home there, embraced, as I've been, and rocked in the arms of a nation.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.