Cycling from London to Cape Town: The Final Chapter

This photo shows two adventure cyclists, Emily Conrad-Pickles and James Davis as they stand next to the famous sign at the Cape of Good Hope.

It’s now been nearly 4 months since we arrived in Cape Town. Four months! I cannot actually believe that it has been so long since we finished. I’d hoped we wouldn’t take so long to write this. I guess it has been hard to cast our minds back to the final chapter of the year that has undoubtedly changed our lives. We were over the moon to finish, but now we’re back to reality. James has been back at his desk since 4 July, I’ve now started a new job, and we are, sort of, dreaming about being back on the road again.

Our last real update was from a few days into the desert in Namibia. We gave a brief summary of life in the desert but let’s cast our minds back to those rough, tough and lonely desert roads and take you on a whirlwind tour of our journey from there to Cape Town.

Throughout this journey, we have found deserts tough. It’s not really surprising when the very essence of a desert is that there’s very little there other than sand and rock. With such vast distances between water sources, we knew we needed to be more organised this time around to avoid the challenges with hydration and sickness we faced earlier on the journey in Sudan and Ethiopia.

Of particular concern was where we would find water on the first day into the desert from Walvis Bay. To solve our problem, my magnificent Uncle John actually drove a 250km round trip into the desert a week before we got there to bury some water for us in case of an emergency. We noted the GPS location of the stash, and it turned out to be a lifesaver on that day. Sadly Uncle John passed away recently. We are more grateful than ever that we could have such as great family reunion in Namibia. We miss you every day.

Etosha National Park safari with family

Lunch stop in Etosha with Emily’s family

Planning complete and water targets identified, we chugged on through the Namib Desert on the rough gravel roads. Although seemingly more remote in some sections, there are several desert tourist attractions and lodges, so we were never completely alone. 4X4s passed us frequently (and covered us in thick clouds of dust!)

Because winter was on its way, we also experienced some very chilly nights in our tent, with temperatures often falling below freezing. One benefit of this was that we didn’t have to suffer drinking near-boiling water during the day. However, it did mean that we slept most nights wearing every single item of clothing we had!

From the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, we made our way east on the seemingly never-ending gravel roads. We were, in fact, pretty lucky, as many of the roads in the area had been graded recently. The 4x4s and tourist bus traffic churns up the gravel roads, so, to smooth out the corrugation, they bring massive tractors – a bit like snow ploughs along these gravel roads to smooth them out.

Emily’s lost in the dust of the grading machine. Seriously, a graded road makes all the difference!

From Hammerstein Lodge, we stopped at the Lisbon Road House for a drink and discovered that they offered basic camping pitches. We had planned to push on a little further. However, the owners had a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog called Bruno, and once I’d met him, there was little chance of us staying anywhere else that night. I grew up with these dogs and completely adore them and have always dreamt of having my own one day! I’m not sure it was the best sales pitch to James, though as the following day, young Bruno came bounding over to our pitch as we were packing to leave and in a fit of excitement leapt on our sun cream piercing the bottle with his claws. This meant we spent our final week squeezing sun cream through a dog’s claw hole and got sun cream everywhere! Most days started with James grumbling “bloody Bruno!” as he tried to apply his sun cream!

It was around here that I realised that I really did need to do something about my broken bike. Frustrated that the gear cables had decided to snap in the last 10 days, we sought help because I was cycling with limited gears and my bottom bracket was wobbly, and it was only a matter of time before it would snap or just fall off. Annoyingly too, we’d been to a really decent bike shop in Windhoek just two weeks before but didn’t know there was a problem with my bike then! With no bike shops in southern Namibia, we set out to see how we could get this fixed. We’d been introduced to the Namibian Cycling Federation, so we got in contact with them to see if they knew anyone in the vicinity who might help us fix it. Through their network of riders, they managed to find a couple of people who could try, but the problem was that we needed new parts. We had also contacted JP, the Director of the African Cycling Centre in South Africa (a colleague of my brother Jeremy), to see if he could help. And he could not have been more helpful (although we did have a real giggle when he offered to lend me his Cervelo and deliver it to the SA border for us a few days later along with a mechanic…). After explaining that a Cervelo wouldn’t be able to carry our panniers, he sprung to action. Before we knew it, his friend who ran a bike shop in Windhoek had couriered a new bottom bracket to his friend who ran a garage in Keetmanshoop where we would meet them to fit the new parts. It’s incredible that you can order a next-day courier in Namibia that arrives on time for £5. We are forever thankful to JP and Mannie from Mannie’s Bike Mecca in Windhoek for fixing us up and getting us back on the road with only a one-day detour!

Thanks to the efforts of JP at the UCI, the Namibia Cycling Federation and Mannie’s Bike Mecca in Windhoek for sending parts, Louis at LTL Motors in Keetmanshoop helps with the fitting of a new bottom bracket and fixes the gears!

On our way to Keetmanshoop from Helmeringhausen (there is no doubt that Namibia was a German colony with these name places!), we had to sleep halfway as it was too far for one day; even though by this point we were reunited with our beloved tarmac! James had pinpointed a hotel with a campsite around halfway so, after a long day’s ride, we arrived at the Alte Kalköfen Lodge.

What we experienced next was extraordinary.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we were a little untidy on our dirty bicycles and year-old kit, and perhaps we were also a little stinky, but it became clear that we were not wanted.

I explained to the owner what we were doing (cycling from London to Cape Town) and whether he’d be able to give us a discount on the cost of a campsite pitch because their prices were high.

The owner took exception to this request and, with an arm around James’s back, he asked us to leave!

It was particularly amusing when I asked if we could fill up our water bags because there was nothing for the next 15kms, and we wouldn’t make it before sunset. The owner handed me one glass of water! Anyway, we found a particularly epic wild camping site beside a railway line just a stone’s throw from the lodge and camped in comfort for free. We waved as the only for the only train of the day passed us just as we’d settled in for the night.

We found a novel wild camping spot by a little-used railway track…only for the only train of the day to pass us just as we’d settled in for the night

The final stretch through Namibia was relatively smooth and incident-free. Water was still sparse, but we managed to fill up at farms and camp in the bush. We even slept under a road bridge in a dried-up riverbed one night.

Camping under a bridge on the B1 road in Namibia

We even slept in a dried-up riverbed one night under a road bridge on the B1 highway in Namibia

Before we knew it, we were at the South African border. Something we’d been dreaming of for nearly a year. We were just one week away from Cape Town.

It was ironic that our last border was the first border where we had real issues with getting through! It turns out that James has a namesake in Jeffrey’s Bay in the Eastern Cape who hasn’t been paying his child maintenance. So, after an hour or so, the officials were ready to take James in and refuse us entry to South Africa due to having a child he had fathered when he would have been 14! Eventually, they let us in, and we camped at Vioolsdrift Lodge, which is right on the border.

The Final chapter, Part Two, South Africa

Namibia was tough due to the wilderness and gravel roads, but we started climbing again as soon as we reached South African soil. The last week wasn’t going to be easy, but we knew it was our final push towards Cape Town. Mixed emotions were everywhere. On the one hand, we could not wait to finish, but at the same time, we didn’t want our adventure to end.

Cycling across the Vioolsdrif border post

Arriving in South Africa at the Vioolsdrif border

Our first day started with a big climb, but it was a shorter distance, covering just 72km. We had planned to have a few shorter days over the final three weeks to give us some rest, so we planned to overnight near the town on Steinkopf. Having gone to the supermarket to pick up supplies, we scouted out places to camp for the night. It wasn’t the nicest of towns. Before long, we headed to the petrol station on the way out of town to pick up some water. We made a plan to sneak through a fence and sleep behind some trees just off the road. Once again, however, the lovely people in this world came to help us, and before we knew it, the petrol attendant asked us inside as the boss wanted to see us! We were sat down, and a moment later, a larger than life Portuguese man and his son came in to greet us. We had a drink with them and a chat, and before we knew it, they asked us if we would like to stay with them for the night as they had some spare guest rooms behind the garage. Once again, overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, we were shown into our room, treated to a hot shower and cooked our food outside, chatting away with our new friends. Sadly they were not up early enough for us to wish them well when we left – so if you are reading this, we really are so grateful for a comfortable night’s sleep and your company.

Onwards, and most certainly upwards from here as we pursued the hilly but very scenic terrain of the Western Cape. We were heading towards the coastline, where we would spend the final few days following the Atlantic Ocean into Cape Town. Our last week was like a dream looking back on it. Yes, we had long, demanding days in the saddle but we were so well looked after. As we headed towards the coast, we made our way through some absolutely stunning landscapes and met some cool people too. First up were the guys at Kamieskroon Hotel, then Hardeveld Lodge at Nuwerus – both these places are in the heartland of South Africa’s Namaqualand. This whole area, which appears beautiful but barren during most of the year, literally springs to life once each year when millions of wildflowers smother the valleys. It was an unbelievable landscape without the flowers, so it must be magical in the spring.

Cycling to Hardeveld Lodge at Nuwerus, South Africa,

Cycling to Hardeveld Lodge at Nuwerus, South Africa, Western Cape

We were soon on the coast and on a direct line south to Cape Town. With a couple of days left, the wind changed direction to blow directly from the south. It was as if it knew that we only had two days left and wanted us to find it as hard as possible! We’d plotted a route that followed the service road alongside the railway – it might have been gravel, but we were keen to do anything possible to avoid the lorries that were bombing down the main trunk road into Cape Town. There was something quite magical about watching the rolling waves crash onto the beach while still navigating off-road tracks to remind us that we were still in Africa!

Cycling on gravel roads towards the north-west coast of South Africa

Cycling towards the north-west coast of South Africa

We followed the service road alongside the west coast railway

We followed the service road alongside the west coast railway

The Atlantic rollers made a spectacular backdrop for our last few days.

And then we rolled into Langebaan, our last night, 120km north of Cape Town. The charming owners at Walking on Water guesthouse hosted us in their stunning B&B. We were treated to a luxurious night’s sleep in an incredibly comfy bed and simply delicious breakfast and great company as we prepared ourselves for the final day of our 19,000km cycle. We could not have been luckier to have such friendly people to start the day with. We know we will come back to Langebaan and will definitely be checking into Walking on Water once more!

Walking on Water guest house in Langebaan

We had an amazing night’s stay at Walking on Water guest house in Langebaan

So this was it. We had been dreaming about this day for the last 220 cycling days, but over the best part of two years since we started to plan this adventure. We were excited yet anxious at the same time. We were so desperate to finish and see our friends and family, yet at the same time, the reality that the year was over, we had completed our dream and were just a couple of weeks away from real life once more, is hard to describe.

However, we were soon distracted as we were met at the gates to the West Coast National Park by Ed Roman, the Consul General to South Africa, who would join us for our final day. Pretty decent day “in the office” for a diplomat, you might think – but I’m not sure even Ed had realised what a long day was ahead and how tough it would turn out to be! The lovely Wendy, who we stayed with back in Vienna, had put us in touch with the British Embassy in South Africa. It’s a long-winded story, but in short, Wendy used to work for John MacGregor, who used to be the British Ambassador to Austria. His wife, Dame Judith MacGregor, is the current British High Commissioner To South Africa (quite the high flying couple) and Ed is in charge of all things British in Cape Town. Dame Judith was due to join us later in the day for the final 30km or so.

We were joined for the last few kilometers by a delegation from the British High Commission

Knowing we had a long ride ahead, we ploughed on, with Ed gallantly leading us out and taking the slack at the front (James and I very rudely sat behind our newfound windbreak, rather enjoying it!). Before long, we were all doing our turn in the wind, which seemed to be picking up by the second. Time seemed to be whizzing past us, and suddenly the idea that we might finish at 3pm was fast diminishing. But suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there it was. Table Mountain, in all its glory, was staring at us, and at that moment, we knew we’d make it. We would soon be there.

50km outside Cape Town, we spotted two mountain bikes on the other side of the road – it was Tom and Eva, the incredibly lovely couple we first met all those months ago back in Ethiopia and again in Tanzania/Zambia. They invited us to stay with them in their holiday home in Cape Town and were keen to ride with us into Cape Town. Sometimes in life, you are lucky enough to meet incredible people. Tom and Eva are two of them, and it was a privilege to have them ride into Cape Town with us.

Before long, we picked up Dame Judith. In only a way that a British High Commissioner could possibly greet us – full of British admiration but dressed in some very delicate ‘plimsoles’ and a rather lovely jacket and beautiful scarf, with perfectly applied lipstick as well! What was more brilliant was when her driver took her bicycle out of the car, the tyres were flat! We LOVED that she clearly did not cycle yet was willing to cycle 25km with us to help us complete our journey. It was very special.

So, with our motley crew with us, we made our way into Cape Town. By now, the clock was against us, and the wind was getting stronger by the second. I was so keen to arrive in daylight to have our photo taken in front of Table Mountain. Tom was a superhero and managed to cycle one-handed with his other hand, giving Judith a little gentle encouragement from time to time to keep her going!

Before long, we were in Cape Town, agonisingly close to our finishing point at the V&A Waterfront, but we had one last, somewhat amusing hurdle to overcome. Tom and Eva had cycled over from the Waterfront that morning and had managed to take a shortcut through the shipping yard, past the Yacht Club to get onto the road out of the city. Taking that towards the Waterfront would keep us away from the city’s busy traffic. However, when we arrived, the security guards wouldn’t let us past the barriers. Tom explained what we were doing in the hope that he might change his mind. Nope, it just wasn’t going to work. Then Dame Judith tried her luck, explaining that she is, in fact, the honorary president of the Yacht Club, showing her diplomatic cards etc. That didn’t do the trick either.

Meanwhile, I’m having a proper strop because we are now only 45 minutes from sunset and I wanted my photo! So, we went back to our original route, which forced us to make a big loop before getting to the Waterfront.

And then there we were. We could see the big yellow picture box (that frames the mountain in it), and we stopped and paused for a second, giving each other a knowing glance and a smile that here we were. It was almost like it was our own little moment before arriving. James reached out for my hand as we pedalled the final 100m. We were there. 10 months of pedalling, days that had pushed personal boundaries way beyond any expectation, both good and bad, were over.

It was surreal, and as we gave each other a hug, our welcome party had spied us (they’d been waiting for around 5 hours by this point, so were quite rightly enjoying some South African wine in the bar nearby!). James’s parents had flown all the way from the UK, along with my best friend, Tamara. There were hugs, tears, and immense raw emotion that’s hard to put into words. A special moment for James, in particular, as he’d not seen his parents for so long, you could see the relief in their smiles that we were safe and sound. But it wasn’t all over yet. Out of nowhere, my father walked around the corner as well. Still to this day, it gives me shivers thinking about how amazing it felt to see him there because it was a complete surprise. I was going to say hi to my parents in London when we got home, but he flew down from Johannesburg to see us in person. They’d prolonged their trip in Africa and were spending time with my uncles who live in Johannesburg, which is where my mother remained, spending precious time with her brothers.

We could not have asked for more of our time in Cape Town. Cleverly we had not booked our flights home for three weeks after we arrived so we had time to really enjoy one of the best cities on this planet. We cannot thank Tom and Eva enough for letting us stay with them in their apartment. It was truly an incredible three weeks. The only problem now is that we want to move to Cape Town!!

19,000km, 220 days on the bike, 122,375 meters climbed, over 600,000 calories burned, a million smiles and possibly a million tears shed, but it’s safe to say we had the adventure of a lifetime. Seeing the world by bicycle is magical. You will be guaranteed to see and experience things that you could never happen if not on a bike. We have no regrets, and we will always look back on this year as the year that changed our lives.

London to Cape Town by bike Table Mountain-7847

After 238 days (10 months, 23 days) cycling, Emily and James arrived in Cape Town

We made the post-finale ride to the Cape of Good Hope

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.

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