A road to remember

Posted on 18 August 2015

A brother pays tribute to his sister the best way he knows how: he puts her ashes in a pouch and takes her on an epic road trip through the Northern Cape on the motorbike that she left him. By Andy Ellis.


Last light on the long track north

Last light on the long track north.


Dear Lauren

The train doesn’t go catick-catack. Not all the time. Not in the manner I remember as a boy. That monotonous rhyme, the metronome lulling me to sleep. Maybe it’s a fudged memory. This blunt steel phalanx bullies into the wind. It thunders. It rolls and jolts, it shrieks and sparks. And when the carriage ahead snatches and yanks at mine, causing me to roll on my bunk, I stare bug-eyed out of the window. Crap. I hope I tied your Harley down good and proper.

Four years since you died. I remember you calling me, telling me that you wanted me to take your bike. I told you to shut it. Told you that if only you’d stop partying with that biker club you’d have a stab at another remission. And besides, that bike is yours, I said on the phone. That bike is a girl’s bike. You’d gone and primped it with tassels, shining roll bars, a sofa seat and a sissy bar. I told you to stop riding pillion with those lugs. I told you to beat cancer for good this time and ride your own bloody bike. I didn’t want that burgundy princess.

On the day the family scattered your ashes I snuck two good handfuls from the urn and knotted you into a sandwich bag. It was impulsive. I wasn’t there when you died. I wasn’t ready to see you cloud in the wind and drift away. And also, in that moment, I was sure that you’d want drama stirred into your wake. You were the rebel child of us four – always rasping against the grain, aggravating conformity. In an instant I knew that you’d rather be let go off the back of a speeding bike. I wheeled your Harley into the garage, stuffed you into a sock and shut the drawer. I had a plan.

It’s funny, stuck to the purple vinyl of this sweating coupé cabin heaving north, thinking back to what I have done. I dumped you in a bloody sock drawer for four years. Sorry. See, your blaze of glory took a little longer than expected to ignite. And besides, once I had you in the sock, where else was I going to keep you? ‘Honey, what’s in this sock and why is it in the grocery cupboard?’ See what I mean? There was only one sensible place for you until I had hacksawed, ground, pummelled and spray-painted your bike to manliness. You wouldn’t recognise it, but the core of it is all there: that temple-numbing bellow of a Harley-Davidson.

One thousand kilometres north on a train – that’s the plan. The driver rams the brakes on the approach to Kimberley. It’s three in the morning, I haven’t slept but I’m not weary. I’m electric. It’s time to clear out and ride across the country, then down to Cape Town. A few souls scrape their luggage across the platform. A man lumbers open the cargo door and your bike is still hunched onto its front suspension like a tranquillised rhino. And you’re not in the sock any more. You’re in a butter-leather pouch, shoved into a canvas bag, strapped to the tank. When I fire up the bike on that deserted platform, I swear the station attendant nodding off in that dim booth dribbles his pants. Just a bit.

What are you going to do in Kimberley at four in the morning? Get the hell out. But not before getting lost, pulling over, reading a map, taking off, pulling over again, reading the stupid map in the glow of the headlamp. I forgot to tell you: I imposed a few conditions to this yaw across an arid province. Just you and me. No support, only a road map, some tools, cameras, film, toothbrush, down jacket and the clothes on my back. Okay, and a phone.

Distance markers denote time left in the saddle, but also offer perfect reasons to pull over and rub life back into sleeping limbs

Distance markers denote time left in the saddle, but also offer perfect reasons to pull over and rub life back into sleeping limbs.

Ten minutes after I find the R357 to Douglas I hit a bump so hard my butt slams a shockwave up my spine. The back wheel shatters the number plate. I guess the aesthetic inclination to fixing it low wasn’t practical. The conformist in me says go back to town, wait for a shop to open and cut a new plate. Bugger that, you’d say.

I have to stop at every town along the way. I love the peanut shape of the new petrol tank I fitted, but it’s not a goer. I have to keep it full. And that’s a relief. We’re only 70 kilometres into the mission and the ache in my butt has become a branding iron, my jaw is locked shut, my hands clamped to claws and my feet are numb. I wedge them under the gear and brake levers so they don’t slip off the pegs. Is this the deal for the next 1700 kilometres?

All misadventures are worth the effort, especially when the tar turns to dust and the landscape is golden

All misadventures are worth the effort, especially when the tar turns to dust and the landscape is golden.

And where is that ‘Welcome to Douglas’ sign? What a foolish idea. I should have left you in that darn urn. Ever been to Douglas? Me neither. Houses are set on a small grid, gravel drives, a store here and there. All I care for is its petrol – that and the relief of standing and walking. The pump attendant wants to know the vehicle registration number.

I tell him there isn’t one as I swing a leg over your bike and ask him what he’s going to do about it. I’m feeling cocky, all Steve McQueen. I’ve broken the seal, see. Made it past go and, man, it feels good. I’m ready to make Prieska my bitch.

So why this obscure route across the Northern Cape? The obvious choices are to rally towards Nelspruit and the bushveld. Or blunder down to Clarens, across to the South Coast or cut straight for the Garden Route. Not us, sister. You’ve been to those places. We’re trekking beyond. We’ll find plenty of wide-open space under this flecked-blue sky to launch your ashes in a bloom of grey. Way out along the R357, I consider naming your bike The Enterprise. It’s only for a snap second, relax. But something else sticks in this vast and scabbed landscape; a line from the movie that loops in my mind: ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.’


The N10 between Prieska and Victoria West stretches between horizons. A wide-open road and an eternal sky offer room for introspection at high speed

The N10 between Prieska and Victoria West stretches between horizons. A wide-open road and an eternal sky offer room for introspection at high speed.

Bulleting on a road that arrows from horizon to horizon without a kink or a rise sets the mind to work. Epiphanies strike as often as the bugs that pepper my cheeks. It’s the N10, somewhere, afternoon, and I haven’t seen a car for half an hour. I pull over and kill the engine. It takes a moment for my ringing ears to adjust. And then I notice the ancient melody rising from scrubland, the energetic hum of the Great Karoo.

I stroll to the middle of the road and lie on the white line, looking up at the sky. The tar boils and I have never felt more alive. This is a good place to scatter your ashes. Back at the bike it strikes me that you, me, the bike – we’re not on this journey. We are of this journey. I’m engaging with it at every level of consciousness. And I’m buggered if I’m going on alone. You’re coming with me.

Later, lightning strikes. We’re going like the clappers, straight into the eye of the storm. I’m a little disappointed at my gung-ho no-gear rule. That pair of rain pants should’ve been in the mix. Lightning strikes left and right and I realise I may be the tallest thing between the horizons.

‘Gun it,’ I hear you say. It’s all Hunter S Thompson out here, so what the heck. Then white-painted rocks set on a koppie spell out the entrance to Victoria West. It’s a pearly gate – and thank God that journey is over.

A man rushes out to greet me, his pork-sausage fingers clamp a handshake. He tells me to ride the bike into his bar, get the thing out of the rain. And he’s got a room for the night. Aren’t you glad I didn’t ditch your ashes out there?


Taking respite from an intense thunderstorm somewhere between Britstown and Victoria West.

Taking respite from an intense thunderstorm somewhere between Britstown and Victoria West.

Every day holds surprise. Smashing the side stand on a sharp rise is a downer. The mechanism hangs like a broken limb. The bike weighs a ton and at some point I’m going to have to get off and take a leak. I rest it against a tree and knuckle in the dirt, squinting at the chassis, pondering a solution. A bakkie rolls up. The farmer asks what’s wrong. He turns back to the truck, comes back with a wire. With the stand tethered like a splint to the bike, it’s a blaze to the next outpost.

If you ever need a tractor fixed, go to Carnarvon. Johan’s workshop is a ward of ailing machines. He stands, greased hands on hips, as I roll the bike in from the white light cauterising the gravel street. I explain the problem, tell him Carnarvon is a long way from Cape Town. He says he knows. He lies prone and fires up an angle grinder. Next time I see Johan’s face it’s got a smile on it. He tells me the bike is fixed. I ask him how much. No charge.


The people of Carnarvon were enamoured by the misfit machine blatting across their town

The people of Carnarvon were enamoured by the misfit machine blatting across their town.

Running repairs to the bike in Carnarvon. Johan opened his workshop outside of hours worked an hour and refused to accept a cent for the repairs

Running repairs to the bike in Carnarvon. Johan opened his workshop outside of hours, worked an hour and refused to accept a cent for the repairs.

Days later I see the sign: Cape Town 170km. Behind me is a grand traverse across the Karoo and Namaqualand. Darn, the things I’ve seen. I’d caught myself singing Nkosi Sikele’ somewhere out there. It was a pride-fattened holler at the beautiful backwaters of South Africa. I had tried to scatter you. I took your ashes and a bottle of beer to the top of a koppie overlooking Calvinia. Crows squawked in the last light. I didn’t want to leave you with them. And the golden undulations of grain between Niewoudtville and Vanrhynsdorp were mesmerising, perfect spots, but no. Not for you.

Straddling your idling bike at this sign to Cape Town I come to understand. There is no meaning in the ritual of spreading two hands’ worth of your ashes out here. The catharsis lies in us sharing the journey. That’s what you’d want. And this liberating bike ride. It hasn’t been about getting to places, it’s about flicking the start button and going to places. There’s a juncture to the left: the R44 that runs all the way to Ceres. I’m not ready for home. We’re headed for the mountains.

And I really am sorry about the sock.


On solo one needs proof that it was real

On solo rides one needs proof that it was all real.


Plan your trip

Getting there

Shosholoza Meyl trains operate between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Komatipoort, Musina, Bloemfontein and Queenstown. I chose the Cape Town to Johannesburg route as far as Kimberley. There are 16 station stops along this route; choose yours. Trains depart on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Cabin and cargo tickets are acquired from separate offices. After many phone calls I found it best to visit the station in person for exact information regarding cargo loading and payment. Ticket booking was a breeze on the phone.

Visit: shosholozameyl.co.za or tel 0860 008 888 for reservations.


When to go

Aim for the warm and dry seasons of your intended route. Train fares increase over peak seasons in December and January, and during the Easter holidays.


Need to know

The railways do not take responsibility for the loading or offloading of your bike. You are required to bring your own ratchet ties and stow your bike yourself. I practised tying down my bike before the day. The experience proved invaluable. I was not allowed to pre-book my bike – payment is made on the day of departure. The train leaves at 10am and access to the platform is from 9am. You have one hour to pay, load and stow your bike. There is no bike-specific place to stow your bike. The carriage has steel lugs positioned at intervals on the walls. Stow your bike as you would on a trailer.

Petrol is everything. I planned a detailed route that offered stops well within the range of the tank. I researched a proposed route and created a schedule that listed towns, distances and road names. Splash out on a good jacket. I wore a technical Harley-Davidson jacket over a down inner. Make sure your jacket has zipper vents to control your body temperature. Mornings are cold at 120kmph.

Stay here

De Oude Scholen B&B in Victoria West has comfortable, en-suite rooms in the heart of town. From R450 pp. [email protected].

Die Hantam Huis Complex in Calvinia has a selection of rooms and cottages to choose from. I stayed in a comfortable self-catering cottage with off-street parking, private braai area, double room, en-suite bathroom, kitchen and lounge. From R300 pp (excluding breakfast).

Rhodene Farm Cottages in Prince Alfred’s Hamlet comprises a cluster of comfortable cottages set on a working fruit farm. I was offered a two-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage for no extra charge. From R400 pp.


Eat and drink

Pack food and drink for the train ride. Petrol stops and town grocery stores offer all you’ll need for the bike ride.


What to pack

Travel light. Your type of bike dictates the amount of luggage you can take. I used a simple canvas bag lashed to the petrol tank with a luggage net and included a basic set of tools, cable ties and a puncture repair kit. It proved ample for five days of riding.



A first-class sleeper coupé from Cape Town to Kimberley on Shosholoza Meyl costs R860 pp for the whole coupé or R430 sharing. (Train fares are subject to change depending on the time of year you travel.) Bike cargo is R1510 for 800cc and above engines. The fuel cost was R1230 for just less than 1800 kilometres.



Some other top bike routes

Former professional motorbike racer and deputy editor of Getaway, Tyson Jopson, and Justus Visagie, editor of bikeroutes.co.za, each share two of their favourite on- and off-road motorcycle routes in South Africa.


1. Maclear to Rhodes

Eastern Cape (± 107km)

An hour’s ride north west from Mthatha lies the town of Maclear, a portal to the otherworldly Eastern Cape Drakensberg. Maclear is the starting point of the untarred R396 that leads to Naude’s Nek Pass and onto Rhodes. Orderly pine plantations and a smooth road surface start the journey off gently, before playtime begins on the first twists and gradients. (Turn back in case of snow, ice or heavy rain.) It gets easier after the summit and riders will reach Rhodes with a sense of achievement, having conquered the greatest of the Eastern Cape’s gravel passes. Want more? The much more agreeable Joubert’s Pass is about 100km away and ends in Lady Grey.


2. Uniondale to Knysna

Western Cape (± 85km)

Route 62 is as magnetic to local bikers as big daddy Route 66 in the USA. But the R62 is all tar and many riders want gravel too. So, where the R339 intersects the R62, near Uniondale, turn south towards the Prince Alfred’s Pass at Avontuur. Built by Thomas Bain, at 70km it’s the longest pass in SA. Starting at about a kilometre above sea level, it winds down to Knysna with the ocean gradually revealing more and more of itself. The road often narrows, but it’s easy with a bike, and you can cool off in one of many rock pools.


3. Long Tom route

Mpumalanga (± 146km)

The roads that wind their way from Lydenburg to Pilgrim’s Rest and back down to Sabie make up a Highveld bike route that has it all ‒ long undulating bends, sharp switchbacks and elevations that make the ears pop. It incorporates the famous Long Tom Pass, which looks out onto the Sabie Valley as well as superb stops such as God’s Window, Mac-Mac Falls and the Blyde River Canyon. It’s a loop with an old-world energy and traces the Voortrekker legacy through some of its most treacherous terrain. Of course, today it’s all tarred and perfect for pillion riders looking for a great weekend break.


4. Cape Town to Clanwilliam

Western Cape (± 300km)

West of the Olifantsrivier, on the edge of the Western Cape, the Cederberg Wilderness Area is an off-road biker’s heaven. It’s home to a network of gravel roads that stretch from Citrusdal all the way up to Clanwilliam. Starting in Cape Town, a ride to Wellington and then over the Bain’s Kloof Pass to Ceres, it winds its way over some of the most satisfying (and super twisty) tarred mountain passes in the country, before laying endless playgrounds of gravel, sand and even a challenging 4×4 route at the wheels of dual-sport riders heading north from Ceres.

Check out bikeroutes.co.za and mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za for more great motorbike routes.


This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

All prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.


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