Cycling in a Town Where Car is King

by | Feb 7, 2011 | Johannesburg, Johannesburg Transportation | 20 comments

Transportation is an issue for me here. I don’t have a car and there’s little chance that I’ll get one any time soon.

I moved to Joburg from Washington, D.C., where one can live quite comfortably without an automobile. I had a car while I lived there but I barely used it. I felt so free and happy when I sold it.

But Joburg is a more like Los Angeles than D.C. This city is built for driving — sidewalks are scarce, public transport is unreliable and unsafe, and everything is spread out. Fortunately I live in Melville, one of the few walkable neighborhoods in town. But if I need to get somewhere outside Melville and Joe isn’t around to take me, I’m pretty much stuck.

Last week I decided to buy a bicycle. I’ve done a fair amount of leisurely biking in my day, and my recent cycling experience at Cape Point gave me confidence. Joe drove me to Linden Cycles; I marched in and bought the cheapest bike they had.

She’s a Nomad. I love her.

I went to sleep that night feeling pleased. I’m free! I can go wherever I want! I have a Nomad!

The next day I prepared to ride to my gym at Rosebank Mall. I put my gym stuff in a backpack and strapped on my helmet. I paraded the Nomad out of the spare bedroom with great fanfare. Joe followed me in his car to document the start of my journey.

Off I go, with my Nomad. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

This was about three minutes into the ride. It had been all downhill up until this point — I don’t think I’d pedaled once. That’s probably why I look so happy. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

After five minutes or so, Joe peeled off to go to an assignment. I was alone on the open road. I had no idea where I was going.

Is it this right turn or the next one? I looked frantically for signs. There were none. As I’ve written before, every Joburg street looks the same.

It was hot. There were hills. Cars whizzed past. I quickly realized that the gym was out of the question. I pedaled around for about 15 minutes and found my way back to Melville. Lucky was surprised to see me back so soon. I informed him of my failure.

The next day Joe drove me to Rosebank. When we thought about how it would actually feel to bike it, we realized our route was mostly uphill and very trafficky. My confidence plummeted. Truth is, I’ve never biked to actually get places and it’s harder than I thought.

Time for Plan B. We returned home and Joe copied a page from the mapbook. He devised a new route to Rosebank that sticks mostly to side streets. We got back in the car. Joe gave me the copied map page and forced me to trace the route with a highlighter as we drove.

I felt better when we got back. But still skeptical.

I worked up my courage for a while and decided today was the day to try again. I studied my highlighted map route. I packed my backpack a little lighter this time, and wheeled out the Nomad.

Heather: Hey Lucky, I’m riding to Rosebank. I’m going to do it this time! I have a map! When I get back I will write a blog about it. Lucky: Ohhhh. Okay. I think you can do it. I want to read this blog. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

Heather (inside head): I don’t think I will make it. Lucky (inside head): I don’t think she will make it. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

I may look happy but inside I’m terrified. Today was the hottest day of the summer and I left at exactly noon. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

I had the map imprinted in my mind. Left on Emmarentia, right on Ennis. Left at Zoo Lake. (Commence uphill climb.) Cross Jan Smuts. (I had to walk across Jan Smuts.) Right on Rutland (still climbing).

With the exception of Jan Smuts, all these streets are wide and quiet and shady. I was sweating and my sunglasses were fogged up, but otherwise I felt great.

Left on Bath. Cross busy street in Rosebank. Only one person honked at me as I tried to gain sufficient speed for a right-had turn. Score.

I coasted into the mall parking lot and locked the Nomad in the spot Joe and I had scouted earlier — on a pole by the parking payment machine. There’s a nice man there who plays music for tips at lunchtime.

I went into the gym and worked out. Well, if you can call 15 minutes of elliptical machine and 10 minutes of ab crunches a workout. I didn’t want to exhaust myself before the ride home.

Back at the parking machine, I gave my musician friend five rand and thanked him for protecting the Nomad.

I forgot to ask his name but I think we’ll become fast friends.

The ride back was remarkably tolerable. Mostly downhill until I got to Melville, where I had to endure the steepest hill of the trip with a traffic light right in the middle. It makes me a bit sad that this hill will always be waiting for me at the end of every ride.

I greeted Lucky triumphantly. He was pleased by my return.

You’re probably wondering how long my journey was. It was 10 kilometers, round-trip. Don’t laugh.

I’m not Lance Armstrong yet but it’s a start.


  1. jeanie freeman

    Way to go! Those hills will keep you fit. Get a mirror, PLEASE. Then you will know what’s going on with the traffic behind you.

  2. Jennifer Higgins

    I am just loving all your experiences in a new country! The country side looks beautiful and I can understand why you fell in love with it. Keep the blog going…..!

    • 2summers

      Thanks so much Jennifer! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Please give my love to Ted.

  3. eremophila

    You’ve done really well! Congrats!
    I virtually grew up on a bicycle. Used it to ride to school, then later carried my saddle and bridle on it to my horse – several miles away. Hills included. Rode right up until I got a car…….then life got busy:-)
    Now that life is slower, I’ve got a bike again and love going out for short rides – luckily I’ve no traffic to worry about but do have to keep an eye open for snakes. So far I’ve ridden over two, not having seen them in time to avoid them.
    In this country, there’s a virtual war between cyclists and motorists – actually between motorists and anything that’s not a car! I wish people would realise that driving a car is a privilege and not a right.
    I wish you well in your travels, and yes, plan plan and plan:-)

    • 2summers

      Thanks Eremophila! Cyclists are very rare in Joburg, with the exception of the serious guys with fancy road bikes/mountain bikes who go out for exercise (and who like to ride illegally on the Melville Koppies, which is super annoying). Hopefully people will start to catch on soon. They better because cars and petrol are outrageously expensive here.

  4. lisa@notesfromafrica

    Willie started mountain biking a couple of years back, and is the fittest and in the best shape he’s been since his army days. You may soon be able to give up on the gym and just cycle every day. Just find safe place and roads to cycle.

  5. amblerangel

    I agree with your mother….Nice job!!!

  6. sunshineinlondon

    Well done, 2summers! Lance Armstrong didn’t start with the Tour de France, so give yourself a break! 🙂
    I agree with Lisa – you’ll get really fit from cycling!

    • 2summers

      Haha, thanks! I’m brave enough to cycle but not brave enough to drive.

  7. Anita


    Your blog is great!
    My friend showed me your blog because I too am an American living in Melville. And like your partner, I’m a journalist.
    I’m surprised we haven’t met, actually, because we seem to go to all of the same places. I’m a regular at Impala Fruit and Veg (though not so much lately, since our car was stolen last month … fail, Joburg) and I also live in a Melville house that has a view of the Koppies. You’ve probably even seen my house — it’s the one with the two boxing bags in the front (I’m being vague here, because this is Joburg after all).
    Anyway, maybe we could meet up. How could I leave you my information?
    By the way, my husband also uses a bike as his main mode of transportation (mainly because we only had one car … fail, us). I’m glad to see more people are doing it.


    • 2summers

      Anita! You comment is amazing and hilarious for several reasons. I have walked past your house, and I specifically commented to Joe that I would like to meet whoever lives there. Do you know why? Because I love boxing!

      I am able to see the email addresses of people who comment on my blogs, but only if they have a WordPress account. So if you set up a WordPress username and password and then send me another comment, I should be able to email you.

      If you’d rather not do that, we could arrange to meet somewhere in Melville at a specified time, perhaps in front of one of the guardhouses (just in case one of us has a crazy stalker who reads these comments and decides to join our meeting).

  8. chris green

    way to go Heather! Bikes are cool but the traffic not so cool. I gave it up when our son arrived… it’s so true about getting fit.
    chris g

  9. Debbie Johnson

    Yay biking! I am so happy bike commuting to work!! I learned the hard way that smallish cable locks are easy to snip through…though I may not be appreciating the heft of the one in the picture. Happy theft-free riding to you!

    • 2summers

      Hey Debbie, thanks for checking out my blog. The guy at the cycle place recommended this lock and it was cheap so I took his word for it. But this is Joburg, after all, and theft is an issue. So now you’ve got me thinking. What kind of lock do you use? And are you still in Alaska? Do you bike to work year-round?? If so, I am impressed. (Actually I’m impressed either way but you know what I mean.)

  10. Tilly Bud

    I’m not laughing; I’m impressed, particularly at your determination.

    Here’s a thought: cancel your gym membership but cycle there every day. You won’t need the exercise at the gym because of all the cycling and with the money you save you can buy a car. Or an interest in a car; I remember they are almost as expensive as houses.

    • 2summers

      I know, the price of cars (and fuel, and maintenance, etc.) here is quite staggering. I’m going to try to go as long as I can without one although eventually I’ll probably need to figure out how to get one.

  11. Mark

    I am inspired by your story, I am planning to start riding but am scared even though I have lived in JHB for the last 18 months. I came from a small town where pedestrians are King 🙂 so JHB is a bit of a nightmare for both pedestrians and cyclist. Your story gives me some hope that the road is not so bad.

    • 2summers

      Thanks for reading, Mark. There is hope for cycling in JHB, although I have to admit that I haven’t kept up with my cycling very well in recent months. It’s perfectly doable though – you just have to keep out of the way of the taxis 🙂


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