Border with Eswatini – Ladysmith

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6th – 10th of May 2024:

To enter South Africa and therefore our second last country until our destination did not take long. Like always, we played the national anthem using our speaker, before we started cycling. The immigration officials were extremely happy about this gesture and one man said that he is sorry he could not sing, since he was not allowed to remove his hat while he was at work.

Until the first town, we had to cycle a bit more than 20 km and we had two options. One road was without asphalt and the other one was tarred at some point, but was not in a good condition. We decided to try option two and only found the road to be tarred in the beginning and at the end. The road led us through huge pine- and eucalyptus forests, which were reforested as a monoculture. From time to time we saw huge farms and agricultural fields with corn and other things.

In the early afternoon, we reached Piet Retief. For us it felt like we were back in Europe. South Africa is the most developed economic area in Africa and has one of the best infrastructures worldwide. There were several shopping malls, traffic lights and many fast food restaurants and we saw many people with the same skin tone as ourselves. South Africa has the largest number of people of European descent in Africa with around 9%. The choice in the Super Spar was overwhelming in the beginning. Here, we could buy almost everything we were used to from home. It did not feel as African as most countries we have cycled to so far.

After a cold night, we needed a while until we could motivate ourselves to get our of our warm sleeping bags. The second day in South Africa continued in a similar way as the previous day finished. Somehow it was sad to see that most of the nature was destroyed due to the intense monoculture agriculture. We hardly saw birds or other wild animals.

In Paulpietersburg, we found a supermarket which sold chips after a longer search. Otherwise, we only found restaurants selling a lot of meat with not small side dishes. While we ate our fried potatoes, dozens of kilos of meat were sold and pig heads were delivered. South Africans love their meat.

The distances between cities are larger again and we have to get used to check beforehand how far the next supermarket is. At a farm, we wanted to ask the owners, if we could pitch our tent on their meadow. The family came out of the house and saw us, but continued their conversation without giving us the tiniest attention. Adi asked after a while if it was their land. They said yes and allowed us to pitch our tent. This was the whole conversation, since the family drove away. Probably they live at another house. In all of Africa we never had such a weird interaction and we were a bit shocked. At least the (black) security guard was friendly and helpful like we were used to.

Unfortunately, Fabian did not have a good night, since he had to throw up several times and his stomach was somehow unhappy as well. In the morning, he already felt better. The appetite was still small, but we could continue cycling.

The landscape got flatter, even though we were still higher than 1200 meter above sea level. The forests disappeared and corn fields and dry meadows surrounded us as far as our eyes could see.

During a break we started a conversation with a women. It was not the first time that we felt the tension between white and black from her stories. What she said was for some part clearly racist. We tried not to judge and to just continue to behave like we always did in previous African countries.

During a longer break in front of a shopping mal, we talked with some men. As soon as we started approaching them, the exchange was as we were used to. We have the feeling that people are more open and communicative as soon as they know that we are not South Africans.

We couldn’t pack up the tent right away in the morning after a foggy and thus damp night. So we dried it by the side of the road. Passing people were quite surprised when they saw two tourists in the bush with a tent.

Fabian was feeling much better again, and so we made good progress in mostly flat terrain. After about two hours, we reached a main traffic artery with many heavy trucks. Unfortunately, the emergency lane was blocked due to road construction, and it was already very tight at times when trucks passed us on one side and another truck with a trailer approached us from the opposite side.

Nevertheless, we reached Ladysmith, the fourth major city since our entry into South Africa, before noon. During lunch, we spoke with the security guard and asked him where we could safely store our bicycles for a day. At first, he said it was possible on the shopping center premises, but this later turned out to be too inconvenient. Shortly thereafter, we found a hotel where we could deposit the bicycles in a room. Our destination was the Tugela Falls, about 100 km away. We decided to hitchhike for this trip.

So we bought provisions, wrote the next town on the way on a sign, and stood by the side of the road. After just a few minutes, a man told us we had to stand in another place because no one would pick us up here. About 1 km further, other men and women stood with signs in their hands, and so we knew we were in the right place. Shortly thereafter, a pickup truck stopped and took us and three women on the loading area for about an hour. After four more rides, we had already arrived at the beautiful campsite, directly below the mountain range. For the last kilometers, even a camping employee took us, as there were almost no cars until the end of the road.

After a quiet night, we set off motivated towards the Tugela Falls. The five-tiered waterfall reaches a height of 948 meters, making it the second-highest waterfall on Earth after Angel Falls in Venezuela. Additionally, it is the tallest multi-tiered waterfall on Earth. The mountains around the campsite, including waterfalls, are part of the Royal Natal National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Drakensberg Mountains are the highest mountain range in southern Africa, reaching a maximum of 3,482 meters.

The hiking trail gradually ascended, leading us more or less parallel to the lower-lying stream closer to the striking mountain range. After a while, we walked through thick, jungle-like forest where we saw and heard many baboons. After about two hours, we reached the stream bed, where the valley split. One side led to the waterfalls through a narrow and water-filled gorge. The other option was an officially closed ladder that led back to the stream bed via a bush path higher up. Of course, we took this path and about an hour later reached a point from which we could see the upper part of the falls. Due to low water levels, we could only see the water of the falls using our binoculars. This is the reason why it is almost impossible to see the water on the pictures. On the way back, we cooled off in one of the pools and enjoyed the fantastic surroundings. Not many tourists were on this trail. We received useful tips from Paul and Anne and got into a conversation. As luck would have it, their son Connor is currently studying in Lucerne. The friendly South African couple took us back to the campsite and invited us for a beer. Due to the entertaining conversations, we almost forgot the time because our goal for the day was to return to our bicycles.

We walked back to the only road leading out of the valley. After about fifteen minutes, a pickup truck arrived and picked up all the staff from the campsite and the surrounding lodges, and we were allowed to ride along. During the ride, one young man expressed concerns about whether we would really make it back to our luggage the same day. He thought it was too dangerous for us to hitchhike at night and invited us to stay at his house for the night. We wanted to at least try to hitchhike until it got dark. A woman who was also in the pickup truck helped us find another ride to the next town. She too was concerned about our safety, and slowly these concerns began to seep into our minds. Fortunately, shortly thereafter, John stopped and gave us a long ride. Interestingly, John was from Nigeria and was very surprised to meet travelers “like us.” He even helped us find a vehicle for the last stretch and quickly found one with a policeman. He told us from his perspective about the level of violence and crime in this region and throughout South Africa. The country has one of the highest homicide rates of the World. Each year, 70 times more people are being killed per 100’000 inhabitants than in Switzerland. Tired and hungry, we reached our bicycles and found accommodation nearby.

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