A Spanish couple cycling across South Africa hit the coast for the first time last Saturday when they entered Port Alfred, and have been charmed and delighted by our town.
First time visitors to South Africa, Ivan Martinez, 31, and Manon Saenz, 32, decided to take a trek by bicycle across the country, starting in Polokwane on September 10, and keeping to an inland route which took them through the rural heartland. They average about 60km a day and so far have travelled 1,700km.
They were impressed with the beauty of the countryside, travelling through Haenertsberg, Tzaneen, Sabie, Nelspruit, Badplaas and Chrissiesmeer, which Martinez described as “very rural, and one of the toughest places. There was a big storm as we arrived.”
They loved the inland lakes and continued on to Piet Retief, Paulpietersberg, Vryheid, Dundee, close to Elandslaagte and then through Collings Pass where they saw beautiful mountain scenery.
From there they headed to Harrismith, the Golden Gate National Park, Clarens, Ficksburg, Ladybrand, Zastron, Lady Grey, Komani, Hogsback and the Great Fish, where they spent last Friday night before cycling to Port Alfred early on Saturday morning.
“The Great Fish was so special,” Saenz said. “We didn’t know we were going to see wildlife – we saw buffalo. We only found out afterwards we should not have been allowed in the nature reserve on bicycles.”
Martinez said they had altered their route as they met people along the way.
“We’ve experienced such incredible hospitality,” he said. “Afrikaans farmers who invited us to stay on their farms. We stayed a whole week between Clarens and Fouriesberg, just enjoying the middle of nowhere, looking at the landscape and cattle.
“We met somebody in Blyde River Canyon who has a brother in Port Alfred and he said we must come here as we could stay with him.”
That did not work out, but after spending the night with this reporter, the couple were happy to check into a B&B in Hards Street before friendly local Stuart Lavender also invited them to stay at his house before they departed on Wednesday morning.
Martinez said he had previously cycled solo across Mongolia, covering about 1,800km, four years ago.
“Manon is the first person I felt I could do something like that with. She got fit along the way and now is very fit,” he chuckled.
“I wasn’t a cyclist before this,” Saenz said. “I had a bicycle, but I wasn’t a serious cyclist.”
Martinez said he grew up in a travellers’ family, but decided to cycle after a knee operation as he was told it was good exercise.
Both he and Saenz studied medicine, and Saenz was already working as a doctor when they met. Martinez still has three months to go before he qualifies.
They live and work in Berlin, Germany.
Even after he qualifies, Martinez said he did not want to work fulltime as a doctor because he values his free time too much.
Asked why they chose South Africa for their trip, he said: “I didn’t know much about South Africa before this trip. We’re doing it as a test to do the whole Africa, which should take about one and a half years. If I like it and Manon likes it, then we’ll do it.”
He said they had both learned a lot on their journey.
“I don’t read the news and know what’s going on with politics. Now I know because I met people. We didn’t know the landscape either. Now we know and every day the landscape changes.”
They have had no bad experiences on the road.
“We’ve been warned by a lot of people, but we’ve never been unsafe. But we have taken care,” Martinez said. “My intuition tells me if something doesn’t feel right.”
They try to travel offroad as much as possible, but sometimes it’s not possible. They did not care much for the R72 without safe shoulders for cyclists, and got some good advice to travel by farm road to Alexandria, before continuing their journey to Port Elizabeth and their final destination in Cape Town.