In September 2022, Dawid Botha set off on a motorbike trip along the coastline and borders of South Africa. He would be biking solo, with all the freedoms and challenges that brings. He shares what he learnt on his “perimeter check” of the country.
What would it be like to take that intriguing little side road? To decide on an impulse where to go, when to stop and how long to spend in any one place? To spend more than a week or two on the road so you could really focus on the joy of riding? For years Dawid Botha mulled these questions, but life got in the way. He had a full-time job as an engineer in Stellenbosch and four little daughters.
Then, in 2022, Dawid and his family relocated to Wilderness for a change of pace and perspective. His wife could run her business from there. His daughters were all over the age of six. He took a sabbatical from his career. The time was right to answer those questions.
Plotting the route
Initially, Dawid thought of riding up to Victoria Falls, a place he’d always dreamt of seeing. It would be a chance to visit Botswana and Namibia too. But it would be his first time biking solo so far from home and the distance and remoteness concerned him. “I started feeling uncomfortable about going that far out. Not just in terms of mechanical support if something went wrong with the bike, but also in terms of being there for my family. If something were to happen back home and I wanted to return as quickly as possible, being more than 3,000km away was a bit daunting for me.”
So he went back to the map for a route that would satisfy his craving for adventure yet get him home quickly if needed. The idea of travelling the outline of South Africa was born. He decided to carry out a perimeter check of the country, posting his experience on Instagram as @twowheelrecce. “After my studies, I spent two years in the air force, with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot,” he explains the choice of names. “I essentially wanted to reconnoitre our borders, as if on a military mission, on my 2018 BMW F850GS. I think there must always be something about your route that excites you. A big destination, a specific mountain pass, a challenge of some kind, the highest this or longest that. This gives the ride a bit of purpose, something for the imagination – even though it might only make sense to you.”
Dawid pored over maps and plotted a rough route along South Africa’s coast and borders. This enabled him to work out the approximate distance, fuel requirements and duration of his trip. Leaving from Wilderness, he planned to spend 4-6 weeks biking solo in an anticlockwise direction. Along the way, he would cross into Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia.
The perimeter check
The first leg of Dawid’s ride took him along the Garden Route towards the Wild Coast. Magical mountain passes, the Tsitsikamma Forest and the Sunshine Coast unspooled before him. Then things got wild. He nearly lost his drone and getting it back involved multiple swims, he almost ran out of petrol and rain swept in. Slippery, muddy tracks led to Hole in the Wall and it took a long stretch of wet roads to reach Fraser Falls. Dawid then cut inland via Matatiele to reach Lesotho, where the biking was “like riding a mountain pass for the entire day”.
From there it was down Sani Pass, back to the coast again and past iSimangaliso to Ponta do Ouro. The scenic sights of the Highveld – Kaapsehoop Pass, Long Tom Pass, God’s Window and Blyde River Canyon – eventually led to Makhado. He rode past elephant, giraffe and impala to enter Botswana at Pontdrift. Back in South Africa, rally racers on the Stella 300 shared tips for his route towards the Kalahari. There was challenging riding on sand roads past Vorstershoop and Van Zylsrus towards Askham on the way to Namibia. He had some fun on Hakskeenpan before letting the BMW loose on the good Namibian gravel roads.
From Ai-Ais the route led to Klein-Aus and on to Oranjemund and Port Nolloth. Wild camping on the West Coast was a highlight of the trip, but getting stuck in sand was also almost inevitable. For more unmissable gravel riding, Dawid headed to the Cederberg before dipping down into the Boland. After waving at Table Mountain, it was onwards to L’Agulhas and the last night of his perimeter check.
“Towards the end, even on the last day, I felt like I could have carried on. It wasn’t getting too long. Every morning I was just as excited about what that day had in store as on the first day,” he says.
A note or two about practicalities
It’s one thing tackling an overlanding trip in a vehicle, but the logistics are a bit different on a motorbike. You have minimal space and typically no cooling facility to carry a large food supply. Fuel is also constantly on your mind.
“My approach was to sleep as cheaply as I could because that meant I could spend more on fuel and thus more time on the road. I also prioritised a decent meal over fancy accommodation. Although I was reliant on shops or restaurants for meals, I carried dry food such as rusks, biltong and droëwors. I also always had coffee, sugar and milk (Cremora) with me, as well as some packets of soup and two-minute noodles. I was completely self-sufficient if I had to be.”
For the first half of the trip, Dawid was lucky enough to stay over with friends or family every so often. “It was a nice way to start the tour as it provided a nice contrast between being left to my own devices and being looked after and spoilt by others. I could eat well and get my washing done. It gave me some time to mentally prepare for the last three weeks when I was going to be completely by myself.”
Lessons from biking solo
Thinking about tackling an overlanding trip on your own? Dawid shares what he learnt from his “two-wheel recce”.
The sense of freedom is exhilarating but can be overwhelming
“I really enjoyed being on the road by myself: you can go as fast or as slow as you want, stop when you want. There’s complete freedom, nobody is waiting for you or depending on you. In your day-to-day life, there’s always somewhere to be or someone to look after. So it was great to take a bit of a break from that.
“But when you reach your destination and you sit by the fire, it strikes you that you’re on your own. There’s no-one to talk to and it gets a bit lonely sometimes. You’re confronted with the fact that you’re by yourself. However, you must make the most of that experience too. We don’t get many opportunities these days to just be alone with our thoughts and to sit in absolute silence.”
You have to own the right to go
“I admit to having a bit of a feeling of guilt about the trip. There are so many reasons not to go, especially if you have dependents. How do you justify going on a solo trip for six weeks? The only way to get past that is if you’ve got support. My wife not only supported the idea, she actually encouraged me to go. She knew it was something I’d been dreaming about. Even so, you are the one that has to convince yourself that you’re allowed to go. You have to believe that you’re not letting anyone down by doing it.
“Even after leaving, it was still on my mind, and holding me back. I distinctly remember a turning point somewhere in week three, when I was able to move past that feeling of guilt. I claimed the fact that I was on this ride I’d been dreaming of. From there on I was able to just be in the moment and really enjoy every second.”
Support from home is vital
“I thought I was pretty well prepared mentally. But the one thing that caught me off guard was how much I depended on support from home at times. I expected to be the one to comfort my family. After all, I would be having fun and doing what I love. But in the end, it was the other way around.
“On the Wild Coast when it was raining every day, the roads were so slippery and the riding was really hard. Because I wasn’t enjoying it, I ended up questioning why I was doing it. I kept thinking about my family at home missing me. If I turned around, I could be home the next day. It was during those lows that my wife encouraged me. I could hear that everything was OK at home and they wanted me to complete the trip. I realised that if I pulled out I might never get the chance again. Think about that during the lows. Maybe in a month or a year’s time, you’ll be disappointed that you didn’t complete your trip.”
It’s more rewarding on gravel
“Gravel is where it all comes alive for me. If I’ve got an option, I choose the gravel option. On tar, whether it’s the highway or a normal road, it becomes monotonous very quickly. But on a gravel road the going is not as smooth, so you’re constantly involved. If you’re not paying attention, you can get surprised by ditches, sandy patches or sharp bends. So you have to be a lot more focused, which keeps you in the moment.
“You also get a more realistic feeling of how fast you’re going because there’s more contrast in what you’re seeing. You can see the various rocks on the road coming at you, so there’s a continuous sense of speed – it’s almost like flying through the stars. It keeps you present and alert, as if on a constant drip supply of adrenalin. Whereas on a tar road, there’s just this grey mass coming towards you. I don’t get a sense of fear while on gravel, but it does keep the mind occupied.”
Also read: How to drive on gravel roads
You have to let go of FOMO
“What I did have to make peace with fairly early on is the fact that I won’t be able to stop everywhere. It’s not possible to take it all in or capture everything on camera or video – there’s just too much to see. You can’t continuously feel that you’re missing out, because that would kill the whole experience. I tried to make a point of enjoying the places that I could stop at.
“I would go into the small towns that you typically just drive through. Rather than only stopping at the fuel station and carrying on, I would take the first turn-off into a neighbourhood, follow the beach road or go into the centre. You see that every little town has got something unique, something special, something beautiful. Every place has its own culture. People make it work everywhere, they find their way.”
Don’t let fear stop you
“One thing that kept me from going sooner was the fear of the unknown. Initially I didn’t feel like I had the confidence to go even though I’ve been riding for five years. I wasn’t sure I could fix things or that I had the right tools. But then last year my path crossed with Martin Brons, another overlander on his way up through Africa on his bike. We ended up doing the Baviaanskloof together and I spent a week with him. So I had a good look at what he used: what kind of tools, what kind of luggage system. Also how he packed: what to take and what to leave. That trip gave me all the confidence I felt was lacking – to get what he’s got and just go.
“If you feel you don’t have the confidence, there are a lot of resources available or you can speak to people that are doing it. It is not that difficult, there are a few things you need to make life easier. The rest you just deal with on the road. You have to make peace with taking it as it comes.”
There’s help available
“Remember that you can only go that far with everything you’ve got on you. At some point you will end up depending on someone to give you a lift or a push or a bed. That’s part of the journey. The amazing thing is that people are so willing to help out, to lend you a hand or to give you a ride. That’s another thing I discovered along the way, there’s help available around almost every corner.
To see Dawid’s full adventure, go to @twowheelrecce on Instagram.