Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Intimate photos celebrate South Africa's eccentric cyclists

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
"I work at La Lucia Virgin Active. I'm a fitness manager there. I ride from where we live in North Beach, Durban out to the club every day. It's my mode of transport. I enjoy it. It certainly keeps me five-alive." "I work at La Lucia Virgin Active. I'm a fitness manager there. I ride from where we live in North Beach, Durban out to the club every day. It's my mode of transport. I enjoy it. It certainly keeps me five-alive."
'Bicycle Portraits' - Brandan Searle, Durban
Asher Tafara, Cape Town
Asher Tafara, Cape Town
Gabriel Moloi, Rosebank
Gabriel Moloi, Rosebank
John Jacobs, George
John Jacobs, George
Stan Engelbrecht
Deon Hattingh, Johannesburg
Martin Afrika, Prince Albert
Takura Chadoka, Mango Mogeni
Dibuseng Janki, Free State
Tanki Mohapeloa, Free State
Andries Toring, Tarkastad
Jafta Pietersen, Prince Albert
Kleinbooi Tonies, Hofmeyr
Kleinbooi Tonies, Hofmeyr
Micky Abrahams, Cape Town
  • 'Bicycle Portraits' documents South Africa's cycling culture
  • The three books show people depending on bikes for everyday transport
  • Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler cycled 10,000 kilometers for project
  • They are now revisiting the cyclists they photographed

(CNN) -- Durban's beachfront promenade was whipped by thin sheets of rain as Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler sat at a seaside café to have breakfast. Coffee was in order. The two photographers were still trying to shake off their morning tiredness, having just arrived at the coastal city after cycling some 1,600 kilometers from Kimberley, a town at the heart of South Africa.

"Just as the coffee arrived, I saw this guy fly by with no shirt on, riding this strange-looking bike," recalls Engelbrecht. "Nic and I just looked at each other and it was like, 'we've got to get this guy!' Nic just said 'go, go, go,' so I jumped on my bike and started chasing him in the rain."

It took more than seven kilometers and several screams before Engelbrecht finally managed to catch up with the shirtless rider -- named Brandan Searle -- and talk to him. "He stopped and allowed me to get his photograph and do a quick interview with him," says Engelbrecht. "He was on his way to work -- he works as a gym instructor -- but he told me an amazing story; he'd been traveling the world with that exact bike."

That story and photograph can be found in "Bicycle Portraits," an image-led three-book series by Engelbrecht and Grobler documenting South Africa's bicycle commuter culture. Starting in 2010, the two friends and bike enthusiasts were keen to explore who cycles in the country and how their bicycles fit into their daily life.

From township to pro cycling
Pro cyclist defies tough childhood
Historic cyclist shows off high-tech bike

"We decided just to get on our bikes and cycle around and see who we would meet," says Engelbrecht. "It happened organically," adds Grobler, 34. "We didn't set out with a strict plan of what we wanted to do...We were thinking maybe we'll working on it for six months."

Read this: Cape Town draped in color for 'slave' carnival

Instead, Grobler and Engelbrecht ended up spending over three years on the project, cycling thousands of kilometers across South Africa -- from big urban centers, through steep hills and mountains, to small towns and rural areas.

Along their journeys, they'd speak to, photograph and sometimes even ride together with the cyclists they'd meet on the road, people who used their bikes not for recreation but as an everyday way of transport -- everyone from die-hard commuters to people making a living from their makeshift bicycles.

Engelbrecht and Grobler say these "brave" and "inspirational" individuals, are defying dangerous roads and social prejudices by making the everyday decision to use bicycles to get around.

"In South Africa there's no culture of commuting by bicycle," says Engelbrecht. "Some of the friends that we made were really colorful and interesting people, very eccentric I would say," he adds.

"It's really an alternative choice to ride a bicycle -- it's often a choice that comes out of necessity because of the rising costs of transport and in fact people have to travel long distances to get to work. Often people live in townships and they work in the cities where it's actually very far from their home."

Read: Star Wars town being swallowed by Sahara

Grobler and Engelbrecht, who turned to crowdsourcing website Kickstarter to fund their project, say that riding a bicycle themselves helped them create an instant bond with the cyclists they'd encounter, allowing different people from all walks of life to open up to them and have a friendly discussion.

There is a pride around having and using a bicycle, especially because in South Africa it's not being used as much for commuting.
Nic Grobler, Bicycle Portraits

"There is a pride around having and using a bicycle, especially because in South Africa it's not being used as much for commuting," says Grobler. "It kind of felt like you get a different holistic image of the country, after hanging out one on one with everyday people," he adds. "A very different image of the country, of the situation and the state of racial interactions and political interactions ... than you get from, say, reading the newspaper or always being aware of the extremes."

The photographic project was published in December 2012, yet that didn't signal the end of Grobler and Engelbracht's journey. Since then, they have been on their bikes again, cycling back to meet the people featured in the books in order to give them a copy.

"It was a very natural thing to do," explains Grobler. "We never felt that the right thing was to pay anybody for their time or taking their photo -- that'd be kind of compromising the integrity of it," he adds. "As far as our project goes, it's probably the best part of the experience."

Engelbrecht agrees. "It's very rewarding being able to go back to someone and say, 'remember I met you two years ago, I took your photo and this is what I did with it,'" he says.

The two photographers have so far gone back to about 70% of the people they'd photographed and are still planning to visit the remainder 30%.

"People's reactions are always very positive," says Engelbrecht. "They feel very proud, they really love it, it's a nice feeling to make someone feel so proud and also ... when you're able to give them a copy of the book, they can see themselves amongst other South Africans that have a similar interest to them. And also the stories -- you can read a lot about other people's personal history and culture and socioeconomic background, it's just very interesting for these people."

Click through the gallery above to read excerpts of stories by the cyclists featured in the "Bicycle Portraits."

Read: Climbing South Africa's leafy summits

Read: Tribal beauty - Photographer gives snapshot of vanishing way of life

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.