Cape Town, South Africa (20 October 2002)

Cape Town, South Africa (20 October 2002)
Cape Town, South Africa

“This is fulfilling your dream. Never forget that and smile every time you remember that.”
written in a letter to me by SB, 2001

“You don’t know unless you try”
phrase frequently used in the book ‘Bravo
Two Zero’

“What we do in life echoes in eternity”

End of Africa
How can I begin to get my head round it all? I have now ridden a bicycle
from my front door in England to Cape Town in South Africa (422 days,
20,300km, 27 countries). What an odd thing to have done. This last leg has
been a nostalgia tour, a trip down all the memory lanes of Europe, the
Middle East and Africa as I plodded my way to the Cape. Thinking back –
faces, places, feelings. Wasn’t so-and-so beautiful?! How crazy was that
place?! How happy was I then?! How on earth did I keep going after
so-and-so?! Half forgetting the wandering and the pain, half remembering
days gone by. And so on and so on until here I am, champagne bottle in hand feeling stunned and muted to be sat beneath the famous
Table Mountain, and perplexed by just how ordinary I feel on this day I have
strived towards for so long.

This final stage has not all been about old memories – I have been forging
new ones too. From the lush cliffs of the Wild Coast I watched dolphins
powerfully surfing the green swell below. Out alone in the silver waves at
the first hint of dawn I wondered if my own personal surfing ineptitude may
in some way be linked to my Union Jack shorts and total absence of suntan.
In a hopeless Transkei shanty town I watched a gang of leering young men
make throat-slitting gestures at me as I fumbled to repair a puncture beside
the road. “Come on tyre – stay up, stay up,” I prayed. “You too sun – stay up!
Stay up!” as the warm light slunk lower and the shadows lengthened, reaching
towards dark, night time anarchy.

Grahamstown was unlike anything I had seen on this extraordinary continent –
a small English market town complete even with squally puddles and trees
jostled by mad, random wind. Amongst all the churches and Olde Shoppes is
Rhodes University; a reminder for me of my life in ages past: optional
academia, highbrow male entertainment such as putting traffic cones on your
head and beautiful girls diligently sitting at computers all around you. I
was escorted out of town. Ten boys from St. Andrew’s Prep School riding
energetically out in front and three Rhodes students forming a much more
sedate rearguard.

Leeuwenbosch Country House looked after me regally – great
characters, hilarious anecdotes and a fabulous old cellar pub. On the wall
was an antique poacher’s shotgun. It looked just like an ordinary country
gent’s walking stick yet it was also a shotgun! Now that would have given
all those stone throwing brats in Ethiopia a shock… At Shamwari
I finally encountered lions, huge, arrogant and considerably closer up than I might have planned.

Is there anything worse than being in a city where nobody knows your name?
In Port Elizabeth I read my newspaper and watched TV in a bar jammed with
partying, laughing people. Time for an early night.

For any armchair surfer and fan of the film Endless Summer a trip to the
legendary Jeffrey’s Bay is a must. From there I knocked off a 170km day for
old times’ sake, taking time to pause on Bloukrans Bridge. Crouching low and
with exaggerated slowness and care I peered reluctantly over the edge and
down, down, down a ludicrous 216 metres – the view of the World’s Highest
Bungee Jump. Knees shaking I rode on in search of a nice restorative cup of
tea instead.

The renowned Garden Route was next. It was certainly pleasant but, at the
risk of inciting the ire of many, to my mind it is over-rated. Still, the
coach loads of blue-rinsed European old folks were having fun. By the time
the blue-rinsers have enjoyed their cream tea and are back on the coach for
Cape Town they will all be asleep and missing out on really beautiful
scenery. The hulking Langeberg mountains loom large like a rugby back row
over bright farmland that reminded me of the homecoming scene in Gladiator
(possibly one of the greatest movies of all time – certainly well up there
with Top Gun and Armageddon!).

A great South African delicacy is biltong, tough strips of sun dried raw
meat that looks even worse than it sounds. But I love the stuff and was
doing battle with it when a busload of camera wielding old dears drove by.
Were they gawping aghast at the sight of me and my bike sprawled comfortably
in the gutter or the repulsive looking thing I was gleefully tearing at?
Harold Pinter said that, “the more acute the experience, the less articulate
the expression.” One of my main motivations through all the tough times has
been the thought of how I would feel the moment I eventually rounded that
last corner or crested that last hill and for the first time gazed on Table
Mountain and the end of Africa. In the circumstances I think that I did
pretty well with a “Bugger me!”

I reached the summit of a mountain pass (will they ever end?) and there
below me lay Franschhoek. This is just silly, I thought: mountains as
stunning as this, immaculately vineyards combed along the lower slopes, a
village so pristine, crisp dazzling Cape Dutch wineries, aromas from
fantastically out-of-my-league restaurants, a perfect blue sky and only two
days to go till I reach Cape Town! What on earth have I been whining (not
wine-ing) for all year?!

Not long to go now: the final puncture, the final shady tree, the final
banana sandwich. Cape Point! The End of Africa! A car park belching hordes
of tourists from ranks of coaches. Japanese groups queuing to take
photographs and a strict rotation policy at all the viewpoints. I haven’t
spoken to Sarah since leaving home but I have been dreaming all that time
about phoning her first to tell her that I had done it, only to find that
the damn phone wouldn’t do international calls.

This was turning into a
nightmare of disappointments. I have wondered for so long whether I need to
carry on after Africa: this afternoon gave me the answer. I don’t quite know
what I have been searching for on this journey but I certainly knew that I
wouldn’t find it here. This ‘celebration party’ needed rescuing! So I hid at
the Cape of Good Hope and waited for the tumult and the shouting to die and
the full moon to rise. A feisty wind, the Southern Cross bright in the
lightless sky, dappled clouds scurrying across the moon and shining waves
rolling home from Antarctica. On a sand dune beneath a sheltered bush I
snuggled into my sleeping bag feeling a lot better now that I had the end of
the road all to myself.

All that remained was a gentle 90km saunter into Cape Town amongst
lycra-clad Sunday cruisers, a breathtaking coastal ride on a perfect smiling
morning. There was one more climb: a big boy that seemed to reach halfway up
Table Mountain. Nearing the summit I jumped on the pedals and hammered to
the top for a final reminder of screaming legs and rasping lungs. There
below me lay Cape Town!

Having omitted to pack a cavalry sabre in my panniers I had to resort to
scything open my Pierre Jourdan champagne with my Leatherman penknife. A
crisp ‘pop’ and time to celebrate. It is all over. For now. You never know
unless you try and maybe that is the best answer I have to the perennial
question of ‘why?’