By the time I crossed the border again, to re-enter South Africa, all the bright green colors that had accompanied me from Kwazulu Natal and all the way through Lesotho, had now turned completely to yellow. The mountains went from being around me, surrounding me from all sides, to be always on the far horizon of a vast and mostly flat landscape. The visual and geographical change, once I came down from the highlands was radical, I had entered the Great Karoo and now I had an endless 1300 km ride until I would reach the end of this first half of Africa.
Sore muscles and a shrunken heart
1300 km by bicycle along neatly paved roads, with frequent access to water and good food, may seem few after having already passed the threshold of 30,000 km (55,000 km accumulated) experiencing all possible types of diabolical roads and scarce resources. But just as physical and mental strength is built up over time, there are also periods of exhaustion, and that is how I came back to South Africa: exhausted, both physically and mentally. The pain on my quadriceps after so much effort I had made on the brutal slopes of Lesotho continued. I had my muscles permanently sore all day, so pedaling turned out to be incredibly hard even on flat roads. Even so, what I had gained in ease with the plains, I had lost with the strong winds of the Karoo, many times blowing against me. As if I did not have enough, the first day I reconnected with the world on the Internet, I read an e-mail that I did not want to read and my heart shrunk. Everything hurt, absolutely everything. I was broken on the outside and on the inside but I had to move on because if I had come this far, I could not let myself fall right now. I thought of: "Do not give up even after having been defeated" a phrase by the Argentine poet Almafuerte, that my mom had reminded me of to give me the courage I needed to keep going.
The Karoo is definitely a special place. At times, it brings memories that remind me of Patagonia, for its large expanses of nothingness, its aridity, and its winds; likewise, these are the very characteristics that make it also so rough and to some extent inhospitable. In any case, the hardest thing I had to face along the Great Karoo, was neither the winds nor the aridity, but the monotony and the feeling of solitude, which I traditionally enjoy a lot, but on this particular point, my emotional condition makes me feel it way too deeply. Nobody passes me for hours and there is no place where to stop to talk to anyone and distract me, in a route where I can spend more than an hour in a line so perfectly straight that it seems as if it had been drawn with a ruler.
In contrast, the presence of the boer (pronounced: buuure, means "farmer" in Afrikaans) is the greatest gift I can receive at the end of each day in these endless days. The Boer are South African farmers descendants of the first Dutch settlers who arrived in the country in the eighteenth century; they are strong, robust people of the countryside. They have faced bloody wars against the British, survived them all and still today, they work the lands of much of South Africa. But these characteristics are not the only ones that bring me closer to them, but their most outstanding characteristic, the one that filled my heart with butterflies day after day: the Boers are among the most hospitable people I have ever encountered in the world. Every afternoon when I arrive at a farm and ask for a place to camp, they always say yes, but right after that they continue: ‘but why camping if we have a room for you in the house?. Not only the farms are fabulous colonial buildings, some dating back to two centuries ago, with magnificent views of the countryside, but the rooms are always prepared to receive guests, with clean sheets, towels, and private bathroom. After that, follows the offer of food and the constant reassurance that in their home I should feel at home and I can stay as much as I want.
The Boer are not only hospitable, they are also very curious because they do not travel much and even today, despite satellite TV and internet, they continue to live alone in their farms far from everything. They are fascinated to hear my stories, to ask me questions and also to tell me about their lives, their tradition, about the history of South Africa, the past, apartheid, present-day politics and more. The men spoil me with Braai (South African barbecue) in the evenings, barbecuing homemade boerewors (sausage) made of game meat, while the women say farewell to me every morning with a lunchbox full of food for when I become hungry during the day, just as if they were my own mothers. A story that repeats itself day after day. In each house, I fall in love with these people who treat me like a son, a brother, a nephew. Angelique and Christo welcomed me for 4 days into their magnificent farm. They saw me so tired and sad when I arrived that they did not want me to leave. Christo insisted that I should stop asking for permission, and told me to directly take everything I wanted from his house because it was in my house. And this is one of the many families that have welcomed me in this way throughout South Africa.
After I left the Great Karoo I entered the Little Karoo, at which point the vast desolate lands give way to the green valleys along Route 62 passing through the famous wine region of the country, where all I see around me are mountains and vineyards, farms and people. This time, the landscape reminds of the provinces of Neuquén and Mendoza in Argentina which makes total sense, considering that both countries are at similar latitudes.
I was initially thinking of continuing straight all the way to Cape Town, but in Barrydale, at a rest stop, a lovely couple of South Africans recommended a much more attractive route, which by the way, included an invitation to their house by the sea. The South African hospitality did not end in the Karoo with the Boer, but continues with all South Africans.
The transition from the Little Karoo to the coast is simply beautiful, passing between vineyards and mountains as you traverse the range that separates the Karoo from the coast. In just a few kilometers the landscape is transformed once again and the climate as well. These are the same mountains that preserve the microclimate that exists in the Karoo, that allows the existence of vineyards being geographically so close to the ocean. On one side of the range the climate is dry, while on the other the climate is humid, and in the transition, at the top of the mountains, the clouds are trapped almost permanently.
Reality or fiction
Throughout my years of traveling around the world, many curious things have happened to me along the way, more than I can remember, but never something that would bring me to the point of thinking whether what was happening to me was actually happening or not.
I was cycling along the N2 route, which I had to go on for only 30 km in order to find the way to the coast when the day was coming to an end and the golden color of the setting sun revealed the undulations of the terrain ahead of me. At that moment, I saw a vehicle stopping by the side of the road, and every time this happens in South Africa I get very excited because it is always invariably someone who stops to help you in some way or another, either to offer something to eat, drink or just chat for a while. As I got closer to it, the figure of a person revealed itself more clearly. It was a young girl standing next to a car with her back to me, looking at the horizon, her blond hair dancing in the breeze, a splendid figure wearing a tight black dress and barefoot as a good South African. When I was almost there, she started waving her arms for me to stop. I did, and we held the following conversation (I swear!!!):
- Hello - she says in a doubtful voice.
- Hello - I answer with a smile
- I thought you were a friend of mine who is also traveling by bicycle in Africa, but you are not him - she says with a hint of disappointment
- Wow! Look, what a coincidence, because I too have been traveling through Africa and I am about to finish riding the first half of the continent when I reach Cape Town.
- Are you going to Cape Town?
-Yes! - I reply with a broad smile
- are you tired? Do you want something to drink? - she tells me with a very special look, very calm and sweet
- That would not be bad do you have anything?
- Yes, wait – she opens the car and brings me an open bottle of water.
While I drank we continued chit-chatting about the route I had followed so far. I cannot help but feeling struck by the softness of her voice and the sort of sweetness with which she speaks to me when her eyes shine.
"Will you pass through Hermanus?"
- Yes, I'm going that way
- And where will you sleep tonight?
- The truth is that I do not know, when night falls I always ask for a place to camp on some farm.
- Do you want to come with me to sleep at my house? - looks me in the eyes serenely keeping the look
- I do not know if I understood well. You said ‘Go with you to your house to sleep or sleep with you in your house? - I answer smiling but expressing real confusion about her dubious question.
I do not get an answer to that, but the look she gave me, a mix of mischievousness and complicity said it all...
I must confess that it was difficult for me to hide my nerves and not to stutter an answer to such a situation. There I find myself, in the middle of the road, with my 3 months-long beard, sweaty, two days to reach my goal, before this exceptionally beautiful girl who not only offers me a place to sleep but also invites me to spend a night with her. I begin to think that South African hospitality has no limits. And here comes my answer, the one that came out naturally without thinking:
- You know? ... in another moment of my life, I would not have hesitated a thousandth of a second to respond to that ..., even more so, you probably wouldn’t have got to even ask me because I would have been faster than you. But the thing is, you found me in a moment when my heart is sick, and enslaved to another person, who certainly may no longer deserve it, but the truth is that I feel this way, and if I were to go to your house today, I would still be looking for that other person and that would only hurt myself even more, if that’s ever possible- We both remained silent staring at each other straight in the eyes for a few seconds.
"I understand," she answered, and smiled sweetly at me, kisses me softly on the cheek, near the lips right above my mustache, next to my nose, hugs me affectionately and leaves.
I never got to know her name, nor her phone and e-mail, I did not know anything else about her.
Friends, the road gives you surprises, yes, but I would never have imagined that anything like this would ever happen, not only because of the situation but because I have surprised myself with my own answer. Some of you, those who know me and those who do not, will be thinking equally: "imbeeeeecileeeee, imbeeeeecileeeee. What? how? How could you not fu .....? imbecile !!! imbecile !!". But I know that others will be very proud of me, and at this point, I am too. I respected what I felt and acted accordingly. I'm getting old! ... I do not know, but I do know that until today I have not regretted it.
The final stretch
The next day I could not stop thinking again and again about what had happened to me. Would it have been true? would it have been a dream? a simple delirium? The truth is that this event gave me back a little joy and the necessary strength I needed to fight the accumulated fatigue and sadness to go ahead and reach that city that was waiting for me at the southernmost end of the continent. So, I continued to traverse more and more rolling fields on the day I finally reached the coast, near the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The intense color of the ocean dazzles me when I see it for the first time, the recommendation that Nols had given me to follow this route had been truly exceptional. It filled with immeasurable grandeur and beauty the last 200 km to my destination. But I would not arrive without first doing my last stop at his house as I had promised. Nols and Ronel welcomed me in Kleinmond as if I were their nephew and decided to spend two exceptional days with them before starting the final day. I made the right choice because if I had not stayed, the last day would’ve been cloudy.
However, the day I leave turns out to be spectacular. One of those days that are so beautiful that it’s hard to believe they are real. Since the minute I leave, at 8 am, I can feel that the universe is on my side today. The day smiles at me, the road is not beautiful, it is unimaginably beautiful. There is no headwind, it is sunny and radiant. I follow the magnificent "whale route", a mind-blowing winding road that follows along the coast and drops down abruptly on my left side, to a blue ocean so deep it captivates me when the first distant views of Table Mountain in Cape Town appear in the distance. I do not intend to rush now in this very special moment so I stop in Kogel Bay to be astonished by the colors, eat something and embrace every moment of this day.
In the last kilometers of coast, all the emotions are starting to take over me, all of them together. It is an explosion that I find difficult to restrain and it is certainly impossible to describe. Images, images of more than two years on the road since I left China come one after another to my mind as I cycle by the sea. Emotions, very strong emotions, memories of moments that I will never forget. The memories of 26 countries and almost 34,000 km, all together at the same time, it is an explosive cocktail. I feel electricity running inside my body, tickling, itching, it's like having thousands and thousands of orgasms at the same time but instead of lasting only a few seconds they remain in the body to make it overflow in pleasure permanently. I know what it is, it's adrenaline, it's the hysterical, crazy endorphins flowing hastily through my body, it's a feeling that has no comparison.
I look at the signs by the road as I pass by, they say Cape Town. I hold back the tears, it’s hard, they are tears of joy, of realization, but I well-up. I enter Muizenberg to the south of the city, it's an urban world already, the traffic is increasing, people everywhere, I'm looking at everything around me, and I'm sure that the one who sees me smiling in the air does not understand, nor does she/he have the faintest idea of what is going on inside me. My legs stopped being tired as if by pure magic, my body is full of energy, I feel a strength that springs unexpectedly, I push on the pedals with a power with which I could move a tractor and I arrived in Cape Town ... I'm in fucking Cape Town!!
The Bittersweet Joy of Arrival
It has been a long time since I left my house in China, 2 years and 4 months ago, and although this is only a partial end, because I still have the other half of Africa ahead of me to cycle, I feel the intense happiness of having conquered the first half of this beautiful though complex continent. 26 countries (16 in Africa) and almost 34,000 km of adventures have gone by, all of them offering different degrees of difficulty but at the end of the day, they have invariably left me with that beautiful taste of learning what you only learn by traveling the world. Just now, having crossed half of Africa, I feel that I am slowly beginning to understand more the essence of this difficult continent.
There have been innumerable challenges, the cold, the heat, the wind, the mud, the sand, the dust, the stones, the mountains, the desert, the jungle, the steppe, the beasts, the bugs, the Ethiopians; and each of them I have passed with as much stoicism as stubbornness. Each step has made me stronger and each step has provided me with a new way of feeling life and seeing the world. The kind of steps for which I have chosen this life of traveling around this planet in search of teachings that no University in the world is able to offer, nor any book or spiritual Master.
But of all the challenges of these last 34,000 km, certainly the most difficult of all was to pick up myself from the ashes and continue moving forward after having seen die along the road, a dream that I had originally believed it was shared. A dream that had put all my bets on for the first time in my life and lost. Was it maybe beginners’ bad luck? But aren’t beginners supposed to be lucky? A deep cut opened in my heart on December 20, 2014, a wound that felt as deep as an abyss. I knew from that day on, that in order to get over this, I would have to fight a battle for which none of the elements that I had faced along these thousands of kilometers had prepared me. I would have to fight the battle to free the mind, stuck in the illusions of permanence and attachment to re-encounter itself once again with the impermanent nature of life. That’s the battle that lies ahead of me in the coming months along the west coast of Africa on my way to Europe.
Now I have to leave my bicycle resting for a while in Cape Town and fly across the Atlantic to recharge my batteries and my emotional strengths with my loved ones in Buenos Aires, that city that saw me born and grow. In the bittersweet glory of this small goal accomplished, it is time to rest now, it is a moment to reach out for affection, it is time to put on weight, it is a moment of introspection, it is a time to begin to heal and it is time to sleep.