From Windhoek to Knysna by bicycle

The scenery in Namibia, the Northern Cape and the Karoo is stark but beautiful. On a cycling trip you get to experience every aspect of it. Tracks4Africa speaks to Stephen Drew about his 2,000km ride along gravel roads.

“I really enjoy the big, open spaces of Namibia. There seems to be nothing there and yet it’s full of life,” says Stephen Drew. He lives in Knysna, which seems to be the exact opposite of Namibia: green, lush and temperate. How he came to ride from Windhoek back to his home is an interesting tale. 

As an adventure motorcyclist, Stephen had visited Namibia twice and fallen in love with the country’s landscapes. But in 2016, his long-range motorcycling adventures were cut short. After a motorbike accident, his right leg was amputated above the knee. Yet the loss of his leg didn’t bring Stephen to a standstill. Within five weeks, he was on a bicycle – at first a stationary one indoors. Once he was comfortable cycling with his prosthesis, he progressed to riding outside. Eight months later, he took part in a 100km MTB race as part of a tandem team. 

Always a keen mountain biker, he soon tackled races on his own and took on greater and greater distances. He became the first above-the-knee amputee cyclist to ride the 250km Trans Baviaans MTB Race. The gruelling 36One MTB Challenge in the Karoo followed. But what he really wanted to do was a much longer ride, through some of the beautiful landscapes he’d seen from his motorbike. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could be independent, that I could cope on my own.”

Answering Namibia’s call

The idea of riding through Namibia kept playing through his mind. “But at the time – about three years ago – I didn’t think it was achievable. I’d looked at the route, the distances and the supply points. Even on a motorbike, it had been tough enough, but to do it on a bicycle…”

Then, in October 2022, the inaugural Rhino Run saw elite cyclists tackle a bikepacking race from Plettenberg Bay to Windhoek. They proved it could be done. “They managed to get food and water along the way. I realised that if they could do it, maybe I could too. Funnily enough, I’d plotted my own route before the Rhino Run, but it turned out to be nearly the same.”

Two bikes, one dream: riding from Windhoek to Knysna. Pictures supplied by Stephen Drew

It would be another year before Stephen set off for Namibia. First there was the matter of developing an artificial limb that could see him through the trip. The usual leg he uses for cycling is made out of carbon to be light and offer little resistance. But it is essentially just a pivot that is fixed in position, so it doesn’t provide the necessary support and flexibility for walking. “What I needed was a leg that if I wanted to put up my tent, I could actually walk around. So now I have a model that works with hydraulics which I can engage when I’m off the bike,” he explains.

The ride begins

On 1 October 2023 Stephen and good friend Willy Alcock set off from Windhoek, direction Solitaire. In fact, Willy was the friend who got Stephen back on a bike after his accident. They named it the Namibian Ride of Independence. Even though Stephen had initially wanted to do the ride on his own, his wife insisted that he go with someone. “I’m glad we did it together. It helps to have someone to bounce ideas off. And what we experienced you can’t capture in a photo, so it’s special to be able to share it.” Although they were doing the trip together, each man rode at his own pace, meeting up at their stopover points. 

Stephen Drew (right) and friend Willy Alcock at the start of their cycling trip.

Stephen had plotted the route on his Tracks4Africa paper maps. “The paper map tells you the distances between points as well as the road conditions, which helped with planning. I made photocopies of the relevant parts to take on the ride and then I had the Tracks4Africa App on my phone. The app was brilliant, it showed us exactly where we were.”

The cyclists got off to a flying start and by the time they rolled into Solitaire on day 3, they’d settled on a strategy. They would start as early as possible in the morning, sometimes even before dawn. Then they would ride until the heat of the day proved too much, resting up where they could. In the late afternoon they might cycle further, then wild camp if they weren’t close to a campsite.

The view from Stephen’s tent after wild camping one night.

They’d realised early on that cycling according to a predetermined schedule wasn’t feasible. “One day we only managed 50km, another day more than double it. How far you can go really depends on the conditions. The surface you’re riding on and the heat can make you much, much slower than anticipated,” says Stephen. What worked for them was to ride at their own pace and not worry about reaching a specific point.  

Bikepacking lessons learned

Within those first few days, they also learned some other important lessons about bikepacking in Namibia. Carrying enough water to cope with the heat and exertion was practically impossible. The solution? Stop passing farmers and overlanders to see if they could get a top-up. “It took a lot of courage to stop someone the first time, but people were unbelievable. If you put your hand out in Namibia, no-one will go past you. We learned very quickly that the farmers tend to drive between 10 and 2. You can stop anyone on the road and they’ve got 5L of water in their car.”

In addition to water, high-calorie food is essential – and it needs to pack flat. Tins of baked beans quickly proved impractical. Instead, they opted for Toppers soy mince, which is widely available at farm stores and small shops. “The soy mince is high in calories and comes in a flat pack, so Toppers and Smash became our staple diet. We also took a lot of wraps and Willy had a tub of peanut butter, while I had honey. And then we ate a lot of chocolates, up to eight or nine bars a day.”

A familiar sight in Namibia where gravel roads need regular maintenance.
When the sun isn’t baking down, it is easier to appreciate the beauty of the scenery.

When the heat rises above a certain point, it becomes counterproductive to continue. “Up to 36 degrees, you’re actually fine. But when it goes up to 39, 40 degrees, you start feeling funny. It happens very quickly. In the beginning, we would sit under a tree. But as we headed on from Solitaire, there were no trees, no shade, nothing.”

Tough times in the NamibRand

The road from Solitaire to Sesriem was quite corrugated and the cyclists found it tough going. But the beauty of the desert made up for it. In the early mornings they saw oryxes, jackals and raptors on the hunt. Then, some 25km out of Sesriem, they had a major setback: Willy had food poisoning. They managed to cycle back to Le Mirage Desert Lodge, where he spent two days recovering. The first day back on the bike after that, they covered 42km before the heat became too much. While resting up in the shade of a farmer’s veranda, they fell asleep even as their host was still talking to them.

Feeling refreshed after a 2.5-hour rest, they put in a solid stint in the afternoon, which took them to Betta Rest Camp. Just before Betta, Stephen fell and hurt his left elbow. (It would later turn out to be a fracture, but after treatment and rehab, he’s recovered full use.) At the time, he was worried because he couldn’t hold the handlebar properly to brake. “But the road to Betta is so corrugated and sandy, the rolling resistance is intense. If you stop pedalling for a moment, you just come to a halt.” He doctored his arm with some painkillers and anti-inflammatories and they pushed on. 

Cycling in the south 

Over the next three days, they progressed to Aubures Camp, Tiras Guest Farm and finally Aus. At Klein Aus Vista, the owner lent them his car so on their rest day they could look for the wild horses of the Namib Desert. The following day, they covered the greatest distance of the trip, 175km to Rosh Pinah, where they came across other cyclists. 

The Namibian landscape is vast. Just how vast becomes clear on a bicycle.

“These three Australians had left Windhoek after us and had followed our tracks. Then when we stopped for those two days outside Sesriem, they passed us. In turn, we saw their tracks and followed them, not knowing who they were.” After meeting up in Rosh Pinah, they cycled all the way to the Orange River together.

It was in the last few days of cycling through Namibia that things fell in place for Stephen. “Your body changes and you get into a rhythm. And then you’re surprised by what you can actually do. You unclutter your brain – we weren’t watching TV or drinking wine in the evening. So our mindsets were completely different. We felt really good.”

The kindness of strangers

What Stephen treasures most about this trip is the people they encountered. In Calvinia someone who had been following their ride put them up in their guesthouse for free. “In Kliprand, we were about to set up a wild camp when a building contractor invited us to his home. It was one of the best evenings I’ve ever had.”

Another demonstration of the kindness of strangers came near Sutherland. “It was incredibly hot and sunny that day. Then, about 5km from town, this mass of cloud came over the mountain. It was one of the biggest storms I’ve ever encountered. The wind was so strong, it blew me straight off the bike. Then the lightning and hail came, and massive stones pelted me.

“I saw a set of lights coming from the front and a vehicle passed me. I was trying to push my bike when the car pulled up next to me. They had turned around to pick me up.” After dropping Stephen at the hotel in Sutherland, the Good Samaritans noticed Willy’s bike outside a shop and directed him there.

Despite it being October, Stephen encountered some cold weather as he got closer to home.

Reflecting on the journey

From Sutherland Stephen and Willy cycled to Merweville and Prince Albert, where they reunited with their wives. It took them another three days to reach Knysna, via De Rust and De Vlugt. By the time they approached their hometown, they were cruising at a good clip. They even had to slow down otherwise they would have arrived at the finish line before the welcoming committee.

“If you’d told us that we could have another month off work, we would have turned around there and then and gone back up,” he says. “There were so many rewarding moments along the way. We’ve both been inspired to do more trips like this. Willy has entered a bikepacking race in the Balkans and I’m planning another big trip.”

We look forward to seeing where he goes next.

The sign that makes hearts leap or sink: gravel travel has a particular appeal.

Stephen’s bikepacking tips for Namibia

  • Ride to enjoy it rather than cover a set distance every day. What you lose in the early stages, you will make up later on. So don’t kill yourself trying to achieve a certain distance – you will go through pain anyway. 
  • One set of cycling clothes is enough. Wash your clothes in the shower and put them back on. This will cool you down and will dry soon enough in the heat.
  • You need very little, but you do need food and water. Prioritise this above other things. We even stopped a vehicle with a Knysna number plate and offloaded non-essentials.
  • Be open to what the journey offers: the friendship of strangers and appreciation of the small things in life.
The route from Windhoek to Knysna.

Journey statistics
26 days

7 thoughts on “From Windhoek to Knysna by bicycle”

  1. Hats off to Willy and especially Stephen, this is truly inspiring. My wife and I just got back home to Somerset West on Sunday from a >3 week off road caravanning trip Namibia on Sunday. Our 3rd trip in 2 years. I took my MTB in the caravan for some scenic cycling (Gamsberg Pass, Kunene River Road, Ugab Valley to name some). We often saw/see touring cyclists and I am inspired to want to ride. We know many of the places mentioned by Willy and Stephen – Rosh Pinah, Aus, Tiras Farm campsite, Sesriem etc. We lived in Springbok for a while and are familiar with the Namaqualand area and Kliprand. Have cycled the Swartberg Pass at Prince Albert, Karro to Coast (Knysna) stayed in or travelled to de Rust, Calvinia, Loeriesfontein … I feel a connection!! I have also read about the Ride for Rhino’s which offers the opportunity to do an (Australian initiated?), self-supported ride from Knysna to Windhoek for a small donation to an organisation in Africa. I’ve ridden road bikes all my life, but am transitioning from road and MTB to gravel simply because it’s safer, less technical than MTB (important when you’re over 60) and you get to see awe-inspiring sights out in the countryside that you miss in a car and that relatively very few others will ever see.I’ve done one 172km gravel race this year and have entered another two 100 Milers in July and August. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to tak eon this 2000km challenge.

    1. Thanks for sharing your cycling experience – in some very scenic places too. Bikepacking opens up another type of overlanding experience and it sounds like you are already a convert.

  2. This is a dream come true. I would love to do this with my husband. Very inspiring and Akari very doable it seems.

  3. Hi Guys, Henry here, one of the “3 Australians”, I’m glad we got a mention, albeit only a slight one !!!

    Great story, we are proud to have been part of it with you, albeit it just a few days. We wondered what had happened to you guys as the last we saw of you was at the garage at the border, we thought we would catch up somewhere in Springbok or further down the track in Namaqualand.
    From the border we kept on going all the way to Springbok, then the next night at Platbakkies and then to Loerisfontein and onwards finishing just outside Cape Town.
    anyway, great to see your pictures and to hear your story, take care all the best.
    PS Look us up if you want a repeat, or even a trip in Australia, !

    1. Thanks for filling in some more of your experience, Henry. Great that there are more bikepackers tackling this type of trip.

    2. hi Henry, glad you guys made it through the heat. although we arrived at the boarder still in the dark, we were told you guys were ahead of us. we thought the plan was to stop at Steinkopf due to the raging headwind but in the end your decision to carry on to Springbok was the best as the road and headwind was not that bad in the end. Of interest, we met another Australian bikepacker, Alee ,and his American partner Laura in Steinkopf. he has been doing this for 14 years and is on Instagram as ” cyclingabout” don’t know if you guys came across them?

  4. This looks absolutely amazing, thank you and well done! You two are legends and I will do this in a heartbeat if anyone asked me!

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