Beyond the magnetic pull of Cape Town lies South Africa’s premier wine-growing region, the Cape Winelands, where a mix of friendly old towns and pastoral beauty—not to mention the yield of dozens of acclaimed vineyards—lends itself well to touring by bike. Add in a loop of the windswept Cape Peninsula, and you’ve got all the makings of a great cycling trip, even if there are some hurdles along the way.
Our bicycles are lost. I receive this news from my local fixer by e-mail on the runway at Cape Town International Airport, having just flown 17,000 kilometers to spend a week touring the nearby Cape Winelands. By bike.
They aren’t exactly lost, it turns out. Just stuck in customs. When we shipped them from the United States a month earlier to ensure that we’d have adequate bikes for such a long tour, we were promised that they’d be waiting for us on arrival. But those assurances mean little now. On a Sunday in South Africa, with a 300-kilometer ride scheduled to begin first thing the next morning, the bikes might as well have tumbled off the plane into the Kalahari as been waylaid by local bureaucrats.
The bad news doesn’t stop. Weather forecasts, which were fine and clear when I boarded the plane in the States, now look cold and wet and grim for the second half of the week. Meanwhile, two of the seven hotels on our itinerary have yet to confirm. And when we finally clear immigration and head out into the sparkling light of a South African summer afternoon, our guide for the week is nowhere to be found.
This confluence of portents doesn’t jibe with my memory of the Cape Winelands. On a visit eight years earlier, while following our whim in a rental car, my wife, Jen, and I had wondered aloud why we weren’t touring on bikes. Cape Town is arguably the most physically beautiful city on the planet, with the craggy flattop of Table Mountain tumbling down to a whitewashed city crouched by the Atlantic. And the bounty of the Western Cape stretches off north and east to wine country, where vineyards cling to the steep slopes beneath limestone cliffs and amiable little towns are stuffed with quaint inns and eateries. The roads are as smooth and sedate as any in bike-crazy Napa, California, and the scenery better than that of French wine-touring mainstays such as Provence or Bordeaux. It’s terrain that begs to be pedaled.
And so we’ve returned to do just that. Rather than book an outfitter, however, I decided to organize my own tour. I was tired of scripted package trips and wanted some adventure. Besides, few cycling operators seemed to offer riding tours in the Winelands, though I did manage to track down a Cape Town–based outfit called Daytrippers, whose owner, Steve Thomas, offered to vet my itinerary and even provide a car and guide for support. It sounded like a perfect plan.
Now, with a missing guide and torrential rain in the offing and no bikes to ride, I’m having second thoughts. But just as I’m about to walk off in search of a car-rental desk, a truck with a Daytrippers logo on its door and a pair of bicycles in its roof rack pulls up to the curb. It’s Bennett Thomas, Steve’s 22-year-old son, who is just coming off a year of surfing in Jeffreys Bay, near Port Elizabeth, to work at his parents’ business. He has maps and gear and, most importantly, loaner bikes from his father. He also has a surfer’s insouciance that melts my concerns. “It’s all cool,” he tells me. “Everything’s set.” Lesson one about traveling in Africa: patience is the antidote to most problems.
With that, we’re off, cruising east toward the thin blue line of rolling hills on the horizon in search of quiet roads and wine.