Cross-Country Cyclist from South Africa Visits Bedford

September 10, 2014
Anton van der Merwe (r) with Rev. John Gibbons on the steps of Bedford's historic meetinghouse - Image (c) JMcCT, 2014
South African cyclist Anton van der Merwe (r) with Rev. John Gibbons on the steps of Bedford’s historic meetinghouse – Image (c) JMcCT, 2014

By Julie McCay Turner

Anton van der Merwe, at home in South Africa before his American journey - Image (c)
Anton van der Merwe, at home in South Africa before his American journey – Image (c)

Q: What links Ballito, a small town north of Durban on South Africa’s Dolphin Coast, and Bedford?

A: Long-distance cyclist Anton van der Merwe who arrived in Bedford yesterday afternoon, looking for the Minuteman Bikeway. Van der Merwe wanted to ride the path as part of the final leg of his solo, cross-country road trip that began just west of Portland in Seaside, Oregon, some 92 days ago.

During his short visit in Bedford, van der Merwe stopped at First Parish on the Common where he visited with John Gibbons, the congregation’s senior minister who is also an enthusiastic cyclist. Hints about nice but reasonably priced lodging in Boston came from local riders at Depot Park. The camping sites, fire stations, and occasionally dodgy motels that served as shelter during his journey are a thing of the past, because van der Merwe’s wife is about to join him for a week-long visit to Boston.

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A retired pilot who flew for South Africa Airways, van der Merwe spent his 37-year career in the air, frequently visiting New York and Washington as the captain of an SAA Airbus 340. “I know those cities like the back of my hand,” he said, “but I didn’t know America.”

Van der Merwe dipped the rear wheel of his Roberts touring cycle in the Pacific Ocean on June 9, and intends to splash his front tire into the Atlantic during his Boston visit. He collected a small bottle of sea water from the Pacific and will get another from the Atlantic; both will rest on his mantel in Ballito as reminders of the journey.

Traveling a northerly route for 500 miles along the Columbia River Gorge, van der Merwe followed the Lewis and Clark trail through Salmon, Idaho and across the Rockies to Missoula, Montana, Fargo, North Dakota, and Fergus Falls, Minnesota, where he joined the Central Lakes Trail that follows an unused Burlington-Northern rail bed. From Minneapolis, van der Merwe rode to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and boarded the SS Badger, the last coal-fired steam ferry carrying passengers and cars across Lake Michigan to Luddington, Michigan. His itinerary continued through Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo,  Albany and Worcester on the night before he arrived in Bedford.

Riding roughly 60 miles a day on a steel-framed Roberts touring cycle — a British marque that is hand-built in Surrey — van der Merwe experienced few problems during the trip. He had his spokes checked every couple of weeks, and they were always found to be tight. His first flat tire happened just outside Albany, after riding some 5,200 kilometers, so van der Merwe purchased new tires to assure peace of mind for the final leg of his adventure.

Editor’s Note: Van der Merwe’s trip isn’t just a bucket-list adventure or retirement dream: He hopes to raise funds for Girls and Boys Town of South Africa and three facilities in KwaZulu-Natal, including the Tongaat Youth Development Centre, which caters for 55 boys. There is a “Donate” button at if readers are moved to support van der Merwe’s ride with a contribution.

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