South Africa's Cape provinces, a monster motorbike and a few close calls with the wildlife
A two-wheeled trip through South Africa's Cape provinces allows the rider to get close to nature - perhaps too close. Words and pictures by Christopher Baker.
Arriving at Bucklands Private Game Reserve conjures déjà vu. An electric fence looms overhead and on the massive metal gate hangs a huge sign: WARNING! WILD ANIMALS CROSSING AND NO FENCE. I push the gate closed behind me, slamming shut the bolt, then haul myself back into the plump leather saddle.
The 2015 Indian Roadmaster is a rhino of a bike, but the chance of encountering a real rhino has me spooked. My nerves tingle as I ease out the clutch for the 3km run to the lodge.
"Many of our visitors come by motorcycle," owner Michele Stewart had assured me. Barely 100 metres along the track I hit pools of gravel and sand. Soon I am crawling the behemoth uphill over scree-covered rock ledges. The suspension sponges up the hammering as I feather the throttle and clutch to maintain momentum. But I sense I am riding the full-dress tourer close to its off-asphalt limits.
I am soaked in sweat when I finally pull up to the quaint farmstead lodge.
"Oh! Look!" exclaims guide Owen Ackerman as I dismount, pointing to two white rhino lumbering out of the bush.
Five days into my 10-day tour of South Africa I am awed by the country's raw beauty.
I started out by heading south to the Cape of Good Hope from Cape Town. Acres of wrap-around fairing shovelled aside the chill autumn air as I pushed south along the Cape Peninsula Highway. I powered up through mountain switchbacks then traced arcs as the highway descended towards Hout Bay.
Southwards the road wound up and over headlands swaddled in clouds, which poured over a scalloped coastal massif towering above wind-scoured beaches and fishing harbours roiled by mists.
Arriving at the wind-whipped Cape headland, I passed a troop of baboons on the road, and signs warning: BABOONS ARE DANGEROUS. I pulled up and dismounted (unwisely) to snap a few frames of bike-with-baboons, then roared off before a simian chose to get surly.
The encounter prompted a taste for more serious game so I turned east for the "Garden Route" and savoured the lion's growl of the engine as the Roadmaster soaked up the miles. By sundown I had arrived at Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve nature lodge, cocooned in dwarf forest and mist outside Knysna. Vervet monkeys scampered among the branches as I headed for the lantern-lit restaurant, and its divine "rainbow cuisine".
Beyond Port Elizabeth I cut north along the N10 and turned west for Addo Elephant National Park - a pachyderm paradise, with the world's densest population of tuskers. Barely a mile up the sloping dirt road I spied my first. Then ostrich and zebra, almost within fingertip reach. I was exhilarated and grinning inanely, probably. I could never have got so close to so much nature inside a car.
"Yesterday, two lions chased off a cheetah," said the gatekeeper at the entrance for Gorah Elephant Camp. "Right here, by the gate!"
I parked the bike and transferred by 4x4 to the deluxe tented camp, centred on a Victorian farmstead adorned with animal heads and antiques.
"No walking alone after dusk," the deadly earnest guide told me. No wonder! At dawn I cracked open my door to see three hyenas creep by. Then a thunderous growl - a lion? - triggered a jolt of primeval fear as I hurried to the lodge for my daybreak safari.
After two days I left Gorah and rode through a veil of cold rain. Zigzagging over Ecca Pass, I arrived in sunshine at the entrance to Kwandwe Private Game Reserve.
"Are there lions?" I asked the guide sent to escort me at high speed along the corrugated dirt road that led to the reception. "Oh, yes. Of course," she replied: "Don't stop!" Adrenalin fuelled my ride.
"Motorcyclists must resemble antelope to apex predators," I mused that evening on safari, as I watched three lions rip apart a freshly felled eland against a blood-soaked sunset fit for a Hollywood blockbuster. It didn't help that on my dawn safari the next morning we chanced upon two lionesses sitting in the dirt road; hidden in a pool of shade, prone in the dust, as if waiting for unsuspecting motorcycle meat to pass by.
No road ever felt as lonesome as the dirt track that led me to neighbouring Bucklands the next day.
I retrace my route via Port Elizabeth to Oudtshoorn - ostrich capital of the world - then run through the semi-arid Little Karoo. Clouds tumble over the plum purple Swartberg mountains, which cusp a vale studded with thatched Cape Dutch farmsteads incandescent amid lime-green fields framed by yellowing poplars.
At Montagu I divert south for the Franschhoek Pass. Clawing up the switchbacks, it is hard to imagine that in colonial times this pass was known as Oliphantshoek for the elephant herds that seasonally crossed these mountains. They resemble the whisky-brown Scottish Highlands.
Beyond the summit, the R45 unspools steeply to tight hairpins offering astounding views over a sprawling patchwork of vineyards. I spiral down to Franschhoek, the chicest town in Cape Winelands, with its trendy restaurants and bars and old-world wine estates characterised by centenary Cape Dutch buildings.
I continue to Paarl for a final night of luxury at the venerable Grande Roche Hotel, set amid rows of grapevines. Soon I am lazing on my patio with a glass of 2012 shiraz in hand watching the setting sun paint the vineyards gold.
The next morning, I ride the Roadmaster into the vineyard to photograph it bathed in the dawn sunlight. Then I hit the electronic ignition, aim the bike west for cloud-draped Cape Town and the end of a wonderful two-wheel Cape provinces adventure.