Category Archives: South Africa

So you want to change some money eh?

Day 116, stage 89, 133km

Start, Provenance Camp, Noordoewer

Finish, Municipal Camp, Springbok, South Africa

We were up and out of camp early. We had a border to cross, not a long day but not a short day, and over 1500 metres of climbing to do. We were also worried that there might be a head wind. We were heading more or less south west and a south west wind was common in these parts. As it turned out the wind was on a carrousel all day, changing directions and being quite fickle – great when it was behind us, which it was for a while, less great when it was on our nose, which it was for a while; but for the most part it was varying degrees of cross wind and more or less benign.

I cycled to the border with several others and then cycled the hills into lunch with Vince and Bridget. They were probably relaxing but it was a good stiff pace for me. We made it into lunch in really good time and enjoyed a couple of fantastic kite rides down long hills (what goes up must come down) with following winds. I lingered a little longer at lunch that Bridget and Vince – the race was still on and they had to think about time – and then cycled on my own for most of the rest of the day.

We arrived at Springbok fairly early and Vince and I wandered into town. It was like a small Midwestern town in the US: a main drag with big grocery stores, car dealerships and chain restaurants.  We have become quite jaded now. We can walk into a well-stocked, air conditioned mega grocery store and think nothing of it. Gone are the days in the deserts of the Sudan when finding a small packet of chocolate cream biscuits, two years past its sell by date, in a small, tin-roofed, road-side kiosk were a source of joy, wonder and rabid consumption. We could now have a coke any time we wanted, in any size we wanted – 200ml, 340ml, 500ml, 1litre, 1.5litres, 2 litres – and in any type of container that took our fancy – glass disposable, glass returnable, plastic screw top, tin. We could also choose from any number of local knock-off competitors; my favourite was something called Iron Brew that tasted sort of like a cherry coke. But there was also every variety of cream soda and fizzy fruit drink. The coconut and pineapple blend was really good. We were becoming very sophisticated consumers again. Oh dear. We also stopped at a Nandos and had some chicken wings (actually Vince had a stir fry and rice – not enough – and then a half chicken and chips – lunch had been a couple of hours ago and dinner wasn’t for another two hours) and they didn’t have to run out back to catch and kill the chicken first. Amazing.

We also had to get some Rand. I used an ATM – slick, efficient, no hassle. Vince just had $40 he wanted to change for some pocket money. The first four banks we went to wouldn’t do it – a variety of excuses. The 5th agreed to do it and asked to see Vince’s passport. He didn’t have it with him of course but I had mine still on me from the border crossing that morning so I took over the transaction. It was banker’s extortion at it slickest and sickest. Vince’s $40 at a crap rate came to about 345 Rand. Ok then. They then said there was a commission. OK then. But the commission was 115 Rand. Holy shit. But we hadn’t finished. They then charged valued added tax on the commission! What value did they add you might ask? This brought the costs to over 130 Rand.  This brought Vince’s return on $40 to a grand total of 225 Rand. The published exchange rate in the papers that day was $1 = 9.18 Rand. $40 should therefore get you something just over 360 Rand. So Vince had given the bank over a third of his $40 for the privilege of changing currencies. When I asked the clerk on the other side of the barred, bullet-proof glass who conducted the transaction if she didn’t feel just a little bit guilty for the exorbitant fees, she simply said ‘No sir’. Take me back to the Sudan where I can haggle behind the brothel with a guy in a dirty galabia for a small portion of the dirty stack of notes he pulls out of his countless hidden pockets.

The bank was ABSA by the way.

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No easy finish

Day 115, rest day, Provenance Camp, Noordoewer

We camped on the Orange River a few kilometres from the border crossing into South Africa. Across the river we could see the vineyards of the Northern Cape. For several kilometres along the river before we arrived at Provenance Camp (or Felix Unite Camp) we passed a massive agricultural project – turning dessert into irrigated vineyards and soft fruit orchards. The South African influence and investment is spreading more and more quickly up the continent. It was impressive to see but they were obviously taking huge quantities of water out of the Orange River. I hope it is sustainable. For weeks, as we cycled through dessert and near dessert, we have seen nothing but dried up seasonal riverbeds. In Namibia the rains had not come this year. The seasonal rivers had not seen water for more than two years.

Provenance Camp was an oasis on the edge of the dessert. The views from the dessert hills along the river bed were stunning. Our chalet was on a cliff overlooking the river and facing the sunrise. The night sky was filled with more stars than I can remember seeing; the milky-way clearly visible. The sunrise in the morning was a post card. I sat at the table on the veranda outside the chalet with a cup of hot cocoa and watched it come up over the river and the dessert hills, a great way to start the day.

As always on a rest day it was a time for laundry, bike cleaning and maintenance, and the internet – laundry and bike in the morning, in the afternoon I settled in with a good bottle of Pinotage and my Macbook. Several people took kayaks out on the river or wandered the few kilometres to the border town to get a Wimpy’s burger. I didn’t move.

With just a week to go many people, myself included, were a little low. We had come a long way together. We were nearing the end. But we also knew we had a tough final six days of riding ahead of us. We had thought that once we crossed into South Africa most our route would be on tarmac. But when we arrived here we discovered that 3 – 4 of the 6 days would be off road. So, no need to change my tires. Arrgghh.  The change to off road also added 50 or 60 kilometres to our final week – not a lot, but off road it adds up at the end of the day. The changes were made because TdA had not been able to get permission to ride on the main road down the west coast. As a result TdA had had to scramble and come up with a new route that would get us to the same camping locations each day. Of the 6 last days, two were now supposed to be off-road centuries (over 100 miles or 160km). They really were trying to break us. We had done thousands of kilometres off-road. We had done a dozen or more centuries. But so far we had not done an off-road century. There would be no leisurely cruise to the finish line.