Day 1 – I started off from the Richtersveld Experience in Port Nolloth at 6.15am, while it was still dark, and cycled the few hundred metres down to the waterfront. The idea was to ride from coast to coast and there seemed little point in starting a few hundred metres short. I waved to the Atlantic Ocean, turned around and headed east on the R387 feeling rather daunted by the prospect of what lay ahead. The reality of setting out to ride across the country all the way to the Indian Ocean was very different to sitting comfortably at home and planning the route on a road map. Two thousand kilometres from coast to coast. If you say it quickly, it doesn’t sound very far. Sitting on a bicycle at the start of the first day, the reality is somewhat different.
There was little traffic on the R387 and I made good progress for the first 50 kilometres as I headed across Namaqualand to the initial drinks stop. The weather was cool and overcast when I started, but became very, very warm as the morning progressed.
We had decided on this pattern and it worked fairly well throughout the trip – start very early in the morning and ride the first 50km or so, then take a five-minute break to get off the bike, stretch and have a decent drink. I am conscious of the fact that I never drink enough while I am actually riding, in spite of having a bottle readily available. A sip here and a sip there is simply not enough and one becomes steadily more dehydrated as the kilometres tick by.
I would then push on for another 50 kilometres or so and take a longer break to have a cup of tea and something to eat, then ride on to the end of the day’s stint. Rather a comfortable schedule, I thought. The intention was meet Avril at the second stop so that we had “breakfast” together, which gave us an opportunity to compare notes on the morning’s events. We could also plan to vary the routine for the remainder of the day’s ride if conditions dictated and start to think about where to stop over for the night.
If all went well, this pattern would allow us to finish cycling in mid to late morning on most days, leaving the afternoon and evening free for us to be tourists, travellers and campers. This was, after all, our annual holiday. Avril, who quickly assumed control of logistics, would travel ahead as I approached the end of the day’s ride and locate a suitable caravan park or B&B, then return to the outskirts of the town to give me the necessary directions.
But, back to day one. From the fifty-kilometre mark the warm east wind blowing over the Kalahari picked up in force and became a very definite impediment. It was a gradual, continuous climb from the start at Port Nolloth, becoming very steep only at the Aninaus Pass, which is about six kilometres long and reached some eighty-three kilometres from Port Nolloth. The vegetation is sparse at this time of the year – it is probably sparse at any time of the year – and the soil is very sandy. Not surprising, as the area survives on annual rainfall of just 45 millimetres. There is something incredibly appealing in the vast barrenness of the semi-desert that is Namaqualand. I have always loved wide-open spaces and they don’t come much wider and more open than this.
Once over Aninaus Pass I rode on past the outskirts of Steinkopf and then turned south onto the N7. Also known as the Copper Way, what is presently the N7 was originally the main route from the Cape to the copper-rich areas of Namaqualand. It is now part of the main route from the Cape to Namibia.
I had ridden 103 kilometres when Avril indicated that she had located a scenic spot for us to have breakfast, just off the N7 on a little side road. As I turned off the tar and onto this dirt road, the front wheel cut deeply into the soft sand and the bike came to an instant stop, throwing me down onto the road in startled surprise.
Of course, if you have to fall off, you can do a lot worse than falling off on a soft, sandy road. Once I had dusted myself off – and was somewhat relieved to find that no skin had been lost – I tried to wheel the bike over to where Avril had parked the car, only to find that the front wheel was badly buckled. Not a very auspicious start – this before breakfast on the first day! So the mountain bike, brought along more for insurance than with the serious intention of being ridden, was brought into play on the first day. I swapped over the saddlebag and water bottle, fitted the pump and the cycle computer and the fat-tyred bike was ready to ride. After breakfast and several cups of tea I set off down the N7, wondering how, and more particularly when, I would be able to get the road bike repaired.
I was heading south now, so the wind from the east was little bother and I made really good time, helped by the fact that this section of the route included a fair amount of downhill. In fact I started to really enjoy the ride for the first time in spite of the warmth of the day and the increased volume of traffic.
There is very little between Port Nolloth and Springbok to break up the ride except the settlement at Steinkopf, and although the desert scenery is spectacular, the lack of intermediate objectives makes the ride seem longer than it really is. A few kilometres before reaching Springbok I passed the turnoffs to O’Kiep, Nabapeep and Concordia. Names familiar to most of South Africa’s schoolchildren, this is the centre of the copper mining area of Namaqualand, the very area visited by Simon van der Stel in 1685.
When we reached Springbok, which we had planned as the end of the ride for the day, we went directly to the Namaqualand Cycle Shop. They were not able to repair the damaged front wheel on my road bike, but supplied a new rim and rebuilt the wheel at a cost of R80.00.
We booked into the Springbok Caravan Park, which is really quite comfortable except for the mosquitoes, of which there are hundreds in the ablution block and more than enough at our campsite. There are also plenty of flies (and a few chickens). There were quite a lot of folk staying in the camp, Springbok being well placed for visiting the Richtersveld and Namaqualand, but fortunately we were able to find a shady campsite, which helped to keep our tent cool. Out in the blazing sun we would have been incinerated.