A few days off work. An entry to the Knysna Forest Marathon. And another petrol price hike. Three perfect ingredients to justify getting on your bike and riding off over the horizon on another adventure. And thus was born the Cape2Knysna challenge, a kind of dodgy attempt to combine a holiday, exercise and sightseeing all in one go.
The options were widespread – north of the Langeberg, or south? Prince Albert, Calitzdorp? Swartberg Pass? Food? Camping? After countless hours of poring over maps (there is a childhood like satisfaction about staring at maps at 3am over a steaming cup of coffee listening to the rain belting down oustide) the options were gradually narrowed into what became a 9 day, solo and unsupported journey of somewhere between 750 and 800kms, criss-crossing our beautiful country to get from Cape Point to Knysna in time to run the marathon.
On the day of departure the bike weighed in at a mammoth 25kgs, and the backpack around 15kgs. There was a tent strapped to the handlebars, and the saddlebag was to carry my gas cooker, spare gas, sleeping bag, tools & spares and electrics. Yes – that sounds like a lot for a saddlebag but when you’ve got a piece of gear designed and manufactured in Alaska you know you’re in good hands!
Because of the bad weather coming in, everything had to go in layers of drybags, and there seemed to be a ton of wet weather kit on board. The first three days of the journey were spent being chased out of town with an incoming storm hot on my heels that bought heavy rains, flash floods, and snow falls all around the province, even accompanied by a healthy dusting of the fluffy white stuff on Table Mountain, so there was no taking chances on not having the right kit.
During the planning of this trip a heart-wrenching text from family came through to my phone about a little chap called James Read in Johannesburg. At a mere 20 months old he was already in a struggle that few of us can contemplate, having been diagnosed with a very rare form of leukaemia, treatable only through a bone marrow transplant. A few phone calls later to good mate Rob in Joburg, and next thing I was getting kitted out in the CHOC Cow kit and heading down to Cape Point to start the long trek east.
The following are edited excerpts taken from daily scribblings jotted down along the journey.
Day 1, Cape Point to Franschhoek via Muizenberg, Stellenbosch, Helshoogte pass.
Starting off at Cape Point and setting off through the reserve with a beautiful sun rising over False Bay on my right. A great day on the bike with big thanks especially to ‘The Protectors’, Geoff and Jean for the escort through 30kms of dodgy territory leaving Muizenberg.
The uphills are long and slow with the weight on board but the downhills are sheer bliss!
Enjoying some fine friendly fireside hospitality from long time friends Bruce & Mary in Franschhoek, I am equally sympathetic for their flu stricken state as I am relieved knowing they can’t smell me. Relief all round I’m sure.
There is no easing in to tomorrow with a big climb up the Franschhoek pass to start the day.
Day 2. Franschhoek to Greyton.
Mountain tops shrouded in thick cloud was the sight that greeted the sunrise this morning. The essential stop at Sacred Ground in the village to fill up the tank with caffeine was vital before tackling the long Franschhoek pass that disappeared slowly up into the cloud. Things change quickly when you’re enveloped in pea soup mist, dodging cars and construction trucks and trying not to be nudged over the edge by bewildered motorists staring in blinding confusion as a cow on a bicycle emerges out of the cloud.
Country roads flying by at pace became the flavour of the day, fueled by fierce tailwinds and even clocking a healthy new personal best speed. 76km/hr. Admittedly thats not much if you’re a roadie high on banned substances but for me that is the equivalent of a Sherman tank cornering on two wheels around an F1 track. With a backpack that feels like my mates have played a prank and loaded it with rocks, to a bike laden with half a camp site, there was little margin for error or speed wobbles but for those few moments time stood still and everything just felt right – the bike was airborne, I was smiling, my palms were sweating and the world was at peace. Funny how that works.
The next few hours were spent taking the dusty back roads alongside the Sonderend river to Greyton, listening to fish eagle above and dodging inebriated locals enjoying their school holidays, before arriving in the step-back-in-time village mid afternoon in a blissfully windswept state.
The good news is that it’s been two days of getting into this journey with a nice send off out of town with strong tailwinds. But tomorrow the honeymoon is officially over. And abruptly so with the mother of all cold fronts making landfall in Cape Town as we speak, bringing gale force winds, flooding and snow. I’ve been trying to outrun this storm for two days, knowing its going to catch up with me somewhere. There is a chance I’ll get to Montagu almost dry, maybe, but from then on its going to get interesting. All I know is my next official stop is on Saturday night somewhere just south of Ladismith so the plan to pitch tent in Montagu tomorrow night might just get revised on arrival. I thought I was prepared for the weather but it seems I should have included an inflatable boat on my packing list.
Tomorrow starts with the much anticipated 16km portage on the Greyton Mcgregor trail to get over the Overberg mountains into the Klein Karoo. To misquote Doc Emmett Brown (think Marty McFly and Back To The Future) “Where we’re going there are no roads”. (Thanks Rob!)
Day 3. Greyton to Montagu via the Boesmanskloof hiking trail to McGregor. Stormchased. It has arrived.
As tiring as was expected. It was never going to be a fun start to the day with the prospect of stepping out the front door into a big portage session, with the added bonus of being chased by a storm but it had to be done to get over the Overberg mountains and into the Klein Karoo.
The Boesmanskloof hiking trail to McGregor starts with a 5km uphill to get to the saddle before dropping into the beautiful Gobos river valley. Of course the descent into the valley only adds to the already steep haul out the other side and I was very relieved to finally set foot over the top and out the far end of the valley by early afternoon. Constantly looking over my shoulder to see where the clouds were.
The eagerly awaited downhill to McGregor became unexpectedly messy with the wind having now really having picked up and throwing the bike all over the place – just when you think you have a superb tail wind you’d round the corner and just about be launched off over the side into the valley below.
McGregor provided a quick lunch stop (with some humourous moments explaining to the staff that I was taking my bicycle to Knysna because petrol had just gone up!) but I was increasingly conscious about trying to stay ahead of the weather, the skies above were blue but the clouds on the horizon were looking menacing, and I knew what was coming with that.
A swift haul on by now very weary legs to arrive in Montagu by early evening. Still with blue skies above. Still with menacing clouds on the horizon.
Decision time. Gut intuition was screaming inside my mind to grab a quick bite in the town and push on into the night, try and get as far onto the Ouberg pass as possible and camp out before the weather really came in. I was quickly directed down to the last restaurant on the main road through town with the instructions to ‘ask for Keith, he’s also a cyclist’. This chance encounter proved to be a bigger saving grace than I would ever have guessed, fortune favours the brave, luck favours the prepared, and as I’ve learnt – kindness favours the truly clueless. Their kitchen had just closed but Keith welcomed me in with true small town warmth and I was made to sit in front of a fire while they heated up some food for me. As it turns out, Keith is a super keen cyclist and has a touring company based out here – Langeberg MTB Tours. Apart from the dinner, he insisted I go no further – what’s the point he asked while adding wood to the fire and handing me a steaming cup of Horlicks. It looked like a well practiced routine aimed at getting village idiots like me to come to their senses before venturing out into the cold night, and it only took about 30 seconds for plan A to get revised, and I now have a roof over my head in Montagu and will hit the road at first light.
Small blessings again. The rain is really coming down outside having arrived extremely quickly within not even two hours of the clear evening skies getting dark. I wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Ouberg in time to camp out!
It’s an early start tomorrow with another long day in store to get to Wolverfontein Farm just south of Ladismith.
Day 4, maybe. Montagu to Woverfontein. Icy winds and snow capped mountains..
Cursing myself for making such a simple mistake last evening – didn’t think of restocking on food, knowing that today was going to be one of the hardest of the journey. Goodness knows how you forget such a basic essential but I did and I paid dearly for it.
Managed to set off from Montagu at first light as hoped, but the reality of the long day ahead set in immediately with the long gradual climb to the foot of the Ouberg pass, then the pass itself. By 11am there were still 90kms to be covered.
Legs shot from the hike through to McGregor the previous day combined with an echoing cavern for a stomach and I was really beginning to wonder if I was going to get in before dark or spend the night wandering around the Karoo in a hungered stupor.
With no lunch on board I eventually made a call to halt on the side of the road and fire up some hot water for a mug full of my carefully rationed oats and cereal concoction. It worked and got me through to mid afternoon, constantly guessing and calculating how far I had to get by when to beat the sunset. One tin of Coke on board the entire day, saved for a late afternoon treat, a reward for hitting the 100km mark. Mind games. Weary legs paying the price on every uphill, with lots of walking, the backpack and heavy bike taking its toll.
The route was beautiful and helped keep me distracted. From Montagu it ascended the Ouberg pass then turned east, criss-crossing a few spectacular Karoo valleys, weaving between the Anysberg and Touwsberg. The Langeberg mountains at my back were beautiful and white and by afternoon I was cycling towards the snow capped peaks of Towerkop and Seweweeks in the Klein Swartberg range ahead. It seems I parted ways with the much anticipated storm as it headed east and is now behind me, thanks Steve – I’ll take that comment about the genius in planning to go north of the Langeberg!
At 5 o’clock the wheels had all but fallen off when they finally rolled up to the gate of the farm where I was to spend the night, no energy left at all and sense of humour hanging by a thread.
Spirits instantly lifted by the sight of biltong and the thought of steak for dinner – one thing I had planned ahead properly. And speaking of spirits, as luck would have it the guests in the cottage next door, Tyrrel and Anette, invited me to join them for dinner, during which I discovered that they are the owners of a wine farm outside Paarl. Funny how life can go from misery one minute to pure bliss the next.
Dinner conversation revolved around cycling cows and wine making, and foolishly contributing my ignorance to the wine topic with the story of training with a few dusty vintage wine bottles off the rack into the backpack.
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the opening of a 12 year old desert wine from their farm, Joostenberg. I’m a sucker for a nightcap on any day but this was a heavenly reward for the last two days battle.
A body drenched in sweat by night, nose bleeds by day and 3am cups of tea have become standard issue out here, seems old routines die hard. The Freedom Challenge last year taught many many lessons and you learn a lot about yourself. Some of it remains etched so deeply inside never ever to be tarnished and dulled, but sometimes you have to come back here to rediscover those that daily life tries to wash away. Its good to be back.
The James Train continues cycling east tomorrow with a much shorter day to VanWyksdorp.
Day …not sure anymore . Wolverfontein to Vanwyksdorp.
A most welcome shorter day today, starting with a climb up alongside the Touwsberg through a private game reserve before turning east and dropping down to cross the R62 just south of Ladismith. The Klein Swartberg looking mighty and imposing today with its towering snowy peaks, and rugged cliff faces. A quick one km stint along the R62 reminded me why I’m taking the back roads, then off east on the R327 to Vanwyksdorp.
The night is spent at the farm of Heidi and Almon – two complete strangers who welcomed me into their home like I had been family for years. There aren’t words to describe people like this that you meet along the way, and a paragraph or two here would never ever do justice so I won’t even try. All I can say is you will never know how grateful I have been to pass through here and to have met you, and I hope to bring my family back here one day. Your kindness and generosity will carry me the rest of this trip.
Dinner was a huge scrumptious affair, with the kids Lizahn and George, and cats and dogs included. South African farm hospitality at its absolute best!
This would be a good time to mention to those concerned that yes, some of the more desperate clothes have finally had a long awaited wash – there were some shirts that I was ready to burn over the campfire in a days time. I’m not sure if this kind act was more for the benefit of my hosts or myself but regardless, tomorrow I cycle off fresh-as-a-daisy-cow!
The next two days are spent playing hopscotch on district roads and 4×4 trails to get over to the Outeniqua mountains, with tomorrow nights destination being Bonniedale farm at the start of the historic Attekwas trail. My diet has done a major shift from threadbare to putting down whatever I can but I’d better start reeling it in a bit or I’ll never get over the Attakwas!
Another day. And then another one. Vanwyksdorp to Bonniedale.
Rolled out of from a very memorable stay in Vanwyksdorp (with very big thanks again to Heidi and Almon!) , crossed the Grootrivier then rode a beautiful undulating route alongside the Langeberg mountains. The road dipped steeply down to the Gourits river, perfectly timed for a quick lunch stop on the bridge with time to skim a few pebbles upstream then back to the road. Spirits high on the stairway-to-heaven ascent out of the valley, then rolling roads to the Bonniedale turn off. Chatted briefly to the farmer there then off on the last 20kms of the day. Of course out here there is no ‘just a last 20kms’. They were loose, steep, and winding in and out of every valley in sight, the language getting about as colorful as the fynbos, and I finally arrived late afternoon in time to catch the last of the sun while setting up camp. Long day, the weight of the pack with food for two days, took its toll today, legs and back feeling the part!
Finally getting to put all the gear to the test tonight, tent up, sleeping bag in, every layer on, make a fire, then hunker down for what proved to be a chilly night. By 8pm it was 2C, midnight it had dropped to zero, and I woke to -4 and frost on everything. Even the water I had put in the cooker pot for morning coffee had iced.
Crunching over glistening frost covered ground, setting off to tackle the Attakwas trail before the sun had come over the mountains.
15kms of 4×4 trails that curved and snaked up over the mountains. Through beautiful valleys and crossing crystal clear streams with views to eternity. I was expecting a tough morning but I still underestimated it – didn’t expect it take almost 6 hours to get out of the valley.
The last 30kms into town become a mind game, legs weary and just wanting to finish the day but the town just never seemed to get closer.
Finally rolled in late afternoon, early supper in town then sort bike and backpack. Tomorrow we head south, at last, officially crossing the Outeniqua mountains to George via the old Montagu pass. I caught my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean today from the top of the Attakwas pass, and even made a coffee stop to celebrate the occasion, but then had to turn and head north, away from it – psychological warfare knowing that’s where we’re ultimately headed. Patience is the name of the game.
Another chilly Karoo start to the morning as the temp carried on dropping well after sunrise. By 9 it had at least warmed up to zero, on a bike that still equates to very numb fingers and feet.
The route south out from Outdshoorn is a gentle but long and relentless climb. It crosses the N9 and continues climbing but the gradient gives a nudge a good few degrees skyward. Basically the whole morning was spent going uphill until the moment I have been looking forward to for the last week – the top of the Montagu pass and the glorious descent into George. Much of this trip was planned around this pass. I have often look down from the main pass on the N12 and seen the old road winding its way through the mountains, wondering what that must be like. The decision to run north of the Langeberg into the Karoo was largely to afford this opportunity and today it finally came, it was a special moment indeed standing on top of the pass looking out to the sea in the far distance and knowing that this ride is nearing its destination. The next hour was spent enjoying a truly magic descent weaving in and out of the landscape, with a memorable stop for lunch halfway down, before finally rolling into George.
Today hasn’t all been wine and roses though, the long uphill from Outdshoorn made the morning a long drag, and a suspicious clanking sound on every pedal stroke made it an unnerving time. On closer inspection I thankfully discovered it was coming from the pedal, and not from a rusty knee. Bike parts are replaceable, body parts not so easily! The worrying part was how suddenly it started and how quickly it got worse and louder, something inside the pedal had obviously sheered off or given way to relentless pressure and was on its way out. No more quietly sneaking up on fields of cows. I couldn’t really complain though, these pedals have done the distance a few times over and have travelled far and wide in SA, they could’ve just timed their departure to the after-cycling-life a bit better. Thanks to Lara’s quick action on the phone from base camp she managed to rustle up some pedals in George, with thanks too to Fred from Ride Life for being so quick and helpful and getting me on my way. Its not quite a matching pair on the bike at the moment but it’ll get me to the end, I now have one red sock and one green sock.
Speaking of life after cycling, I received the details for the marathon a few moments ago and it suddenly bought me back to my senses here, this journey might seem nearly done but it’s far from over – it doesn’t end when I arrive in Knysna, it ends at the finish line of the marathon on Saturday. No popping the cork just yet!
Day 9. George to Knysna, Rolling to the ocean via the Seven Passes route.
Today will go down as one of the most enjoyable and magic days I’ve ever had on the bike, taking the back route along the Seven Passes road from George to Knysna.
The route is spectacular and undulating with dramatic, winding passes dropping down onto valley floors, crossing rivers and climbing never ending hills up the other side.
I had the amazing good fortune of meeting Fran, a journalist based in the area, along the way for a quick roadside chat, along with a few other wonderful chance encounters along the way.
“And there is something we leave behind to join the ride…”
Savouring the effort of the last climb up the neverending Homtini Pass, afternoon sweat dripping onto the map-board, knowing the ride was gradually nearing its end, before drinking in every inch of the final decadent descent of the Phantom Pass.
“And the calling is taking over and it lasts more than a while…” managing at last to perfect riding with no hands and flying along the base of the pass in a blissful euphoria, goosebumps and smiling very very big, arms open wide and hands outstretched taking in the world. It’s been a truly beautiful day out on the bike, one of my best ever, I’m 2kms from the N2 and I suddenly don’t want this journey to finish…
Taking in the upper reaches of the lagoon with wide eyes as it whizzes past, before the instant reality starts hitting home hard, very hard, that you’re about to end.
“And I miss you paradise, I know you’re over…” The words trail while I’m clutching with my mind the final moments of this beautiful journey along the edge of the Knysna lagoon. After nine days of solitude and amazing scenery riding through our country, we’ve arrived at the sea, rolling in across the Knysna lagoon bridge.
No words. Just memories.
Lots of them.
“I miss you paradise.”
It’s been a magnificent journey to get here, having travelled through some amazing places in our patchwork of landscapes, weaving between mountain ranges and towns and riding through endless hours of solitude. While we need to return, part of my soul always remains out there, untouched, taking in sunsets over distant Karoo mountains, and breathing in the vast beauty of the big skies above. And above all, loving the freedom that comes with wearing your heart on your sleeve and just trying something, and amazing yourself when you find it is actually possible. I was asked on returning that ‘surely you must be a bit off your kilter to go and do this kind of thing, alone?’ (this is a surprisingly common question) – to me the immediate answer was no. Returning and trying to readjust to being around people, this is the difficult part. Solitude is a special place indeed, that only those who travel her roads and indulge her company truly understand. And need.
Marathon day, Day 10.
And it’s finished! After a whole lot of planning, plotting, scheming, and riding, it was great to finally go for a run today after 9 days of sitting on my bicycle.
The marathon is a long and winding and beautiful affair through the forest with the last 2kms ending on the main road into Knysna to the sports field. It was admittedly an unnerving and freaky time suddenly being surround by thousands of people but it was very very sweet to finally get to that finish line that has consumed my thoughts for many hundreds of kilometers. The camaraderie and support along the way for ‘the crazy cow who cycled to Knysna’ was great and it was wonderful to chat to fellow cow, Steve, at the start – thanks for the encouragement!
The journey is suddenly all over. For me. But for little James, and Chris and Lee, it is only the beginning. Please continue to keep them in your thoughts and prayers while we hope for the news we all want to hear, and please see their updates for further news on donor drives and fundraising.
There are also many many people I would like to thank for what they have done during this journey -
To friends and family, along with many strangers here that showed so much support, but especially to Lara, my long suffering and extremely understanding wife, for all the loving care and encouragement, and understanding my need to get out once in a while.
Rob Riccardi, no words to describe this guy, with a heart twice the size of most and a deep passion to throw himself at anything to help. Please read the words I posted about him just before setting off.
To my fellow Cows, for the support & encouragement along the ride and the run.
To Dave and Meryl, the organizers of the Freedom Challenge. Not directly involved in this but a year or two back I would never have done this. My eyes have been opened to what is possible by bike.
Geoff and Jean, the Protectors who escorted me safely towards Stellenbosch on the first morning.
To Fran, for coming out to meet along the way and organizing meetings and interviews.
To friends and family and complete strangers who opened their doors and offered accommodation or a meal along the way and at the end.
To Nescafé, for coming up with the idea of cappuccinos in sachets!
To Wayne and Tammy Keet for the use of Whitewashed for our finish gathering.
And to Chris and Lee, for the opportunity to do this ride for James.
Journeys like this are also as much about learning and growing as they are about passing on those moments and lessons, and trying to share those little things that may seem trivial at the time but that are all too often misplaced under the daily clutter of our busy lives -
Clean clothes aren’t nearly as soul restoring as a warm shower. If you ever have a choice take the shower. If you’re offered both you know you’ve struck it lucky!
Never pass up a roadside shop selling Creme soda. Or pies!
Learn patience, lots of it. It is truly invaluable.
Don’t try learning to ride with no hands when you have a tent strapped to the handlebars. If it’s going to end badly it’s going to end very very badly!
Prepare for the journey but allow things to change your plans along the way. There is nothing better than discovering the unexpected.
Trust a stranger. There will always be those that will take you for a ride, but you’ll be blessed in abundance by those whose intentions are nothing other than sincerity and kindness.
Get a map. Get a bike. And go riding. And when you think you’ve gone far enough, go a little further before you turn back.
No one goes into the driest place in our country without good reason. Even fewer venture through without a destination on the other side. You don’t just accidentally stumble into the Tankwa.
My introduction to this desert landscape came a few years back when our family weekend getaway turned into an exploration of a more direct route from A to B. It looked good in theory, cutting off two sides of the mapped triangle by going straight across the valley instead of lumbering south and then west along the N1. The road less travelled always has a smell of excitement and equal uncertainty about it. The dusty road ran in typical Karoo style, straight ahead for as far as the eye could see and the October morning sun was already warming up the landscape by the time our tyres made an imprint in the powdery earth that was to stain our lives for weeks to come. Nothing is immune from it and it leaves a dusty coat as a gentle reminder of where you have been.
I was immediately hooked and while the miles wheeled by underneath my eyes were transfixed and my mind wandered, building campsites in the landscape and bonfires under starry skies. The one thought that remained as thick as the dust was that I have to come back to this place.
Three years later and I found my reason. After months of neglect my bicycle needed a solid spin again and where better than the depths of soul restoring and endless horizons of nothing. The Tankwa Karoo.
The plan gradually materialised out of nothing into an eight day trek that would ultimately take us north to Ceres, east to Sutherland, north to Calvinia and straight south down to Ceres again. ‘Straight south’ is not an exaggeration. The road is so straight that at one point where it takes a minor curve it had to be sign-boarded on both sides with chevrons warning mesmerised travellers of the excitement ahead. The straight road lends a heavy foot on the accelerator pedal and the effects are to be seen littered on the road side from the moment you descend the pass into the valley. Tyres strewn in all manners – sliced, diced, chopped, split, and all but blown apart by the sharp shale surface, left as road kill to be eventually covered by the Karoo life cycle of wind and sand. I lost count of the fatalities, but it was with some excitement when we came across a live one on the last day. The passenger who had the flight to catch didn’t look as excited as I was as capturing the spectacle on film.
The original intentions behind the journey were based on a self-supported kind of approach. Needlessly heroic to some point but unnecessarily barbaric in most others, so it was with a fair amount of relief when team Elvis and BUD shook hands on the agreed contract of participation. This would be a good time to introduce the team –
Tour name: Elvis.
A highly accomplished ultra endurance psycho Ironman trail athlete, speedster on and off the bike, riding an impressively home modified / DIY’ed Cannondale lefty with a plywood rack and a Big Jim tool box on the back. It would’ve been the envy of Canondale’s design department, until the plywood rattled itself in half.
Tour name: Eisbein, actually Einstein thanks to the day he gave up an evening run for a quiz night but anything red-meat related seems more appropriate for the Karoo.
Formidable adventure partner of many a dodgy outing, including the Breede River epic, The Orange river, The Tour de Towerkop, a few crazy outings into the Jonkershoek snow, and the Seweweeks, to name a few… His adventure pedigree says it all, we need say no more… if you can look past the weird hat.
Tour name: BUD, or Back Up Driver.
Aka life saver, lunch preparer, wine pourer, beer chiller, and dare I say it – chocolate-on-pillow-placer… I may have just downgraded our attempt to make this trip look hardcore. BUD, a dedicated trail runner with too many podiums to mention, selflessly volunteered under relentless pressure to be our lone support crew, and in that instant upgraded the trip from sheer misery to something like a scene on the shoot of Out Of Africa.
Will be remembered for her dodgy parking skills and almost ramping the support vehicle through the front doors of one of the overnight stops.
And finally, yours truly.
Tour name: Basil. Long story. Conjurer-upper of the journey, or rather he who spends the most time on Google Earth daydreaming about back roads in the middle of nowhere.
The date was set, the food and wine packed, and a soggy Saturday morning saw a final departure from home comforts. This would be an appropriate time to mention just how I underestimated the trip. The initial two days 190km ride to Ceres was meant to be fun, but a week after tackling the knee jarring Two Oceans marathon left absolutely nothing in the legs but hour upon hour of cramp. Most of the Saturday afternoon was spent on the side of the R44 towards Wellington in a grimaced, teeth-clenched, locked-jaw, state of agony providing good entertainment to the passing motorists who probably thought I’d escaped the local institution. (They would have been forgiven for thinking the same if they’d seen us a few days later) Saturday night was spent in Wellington before tackling the long and winding Bains Kloof and Michells passes to Ceres. By now I was really looking forward to some company and it couldn’t have arrived soon enough on Sunday.
Monday morning we were packed and ready for the long haul up into the Tankwa Karoo. The initial 50kms were spent dodging trucks and convoys of festive bohemians making their way up to the annual Afrika Burn festival with everything in tow from piles of wood to cars covered in grass. I kid you not. We weren’t sure if it was of the artificial or smoking variety but the vehicles’ inhabitants looked set on making it a week to remember. Not to be outdone, we got kitted out appropriately and the trip suddenly started getting a distinct ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ feel to it.
The Burn is our local answer to the international ‘Burning Man’ gathering and provides a good excuse for those inclined to revel around the clock in a surrealist landscape of sculptures, costumes, and fumes. I have since read it being described as “part art festival, part radical self expression, part esoteric fair, part party (seemed all party to me?) and part community building and has no commercial aspect at all. There is no money allowed and no commercial content at all. A gifting society is created by Burners who gift of themselves on all levels.” (That last sentence seems infinitely understated!)
Our route thankfully detoured off the dusty Burner’s route and by midday we were sucking on the clean air of complete solitude and peace as we drifted east to our overnight stop at Bizansgat, a working sheep farm with some magnificently restored cottages – no electricity, no cell phone signal. Just peace. And stars, lots of them!
Our destination for the following day was 125km away, just short of Sutherland on the farm Blesfontein. The undulating route towards the Roggeveld escarpment gradually gave way to a flatter landscape as we crossed the Tankwa river, before reaching the foot of the feared Ouberg Pass. We started the climb at 5pm and emerged over the top in the dark at 7. Two hours of slogging up that loose shaled beast but it was well worth every step for the views afforded us – looking out over the entire Tankwa valley was one of the undisputed highlights of the trip, the sun sinking into a red sky over the Cederberg over a hundred kilometres away was completely breathtaking. We finally rolled into the farm somewhere between 8 & 9pm, in true Karoo hospitality the farmer, Nicol, had come out before that to look for us on the road, armed with an ice cold 2l Coke after hearing we’d run out of water along the way.
While the others were making this ride look like a breeze, the 4 days of toil on weary legs had left my confidence more than a bit shattered and I drifted off into a near comatose sleep unsure of what the new day would hold.
The body was pleased to ease into the following morning with the thoughts of the big climb up Ouberg now a thing of the past. A bank of morning fog creeping up from the valley below had cooled things down nicely as we set off to Sutherland, arriving in time to do justice to the breakfast menu at the Jupiter restaurant before setting off north. Our goal was somewhere near Middelpos but fading afternoon daylight started catching up and we managed to bunk down for the night at a farm a few kms short of our target. Once again the legendary Karoo hospitality came knocking, or rather we came knocking and Karoo kindness let us in for the night. Our unforeseen host for the night was a local farmer, Willie. With a farmhouse mid way through renovations there was room to sleep an entire army on the floor of the beautiful old building, the creaking floorboards as you walk echoed softly down the long passage, and our plans of sleeping on the grass outside changed quickly when we were told how cold it gets there. Willie was a quiet, unassuming bloke of few words, but we managed to lure him into joining us for a few beers around our braai (actually his braai). He summed up his peaceful existence out there in no-mans lands quite perfectly in one sentence. “To live here you must be born here”. Food for thought indeed while we tried to charge cellphones, camera batteries and get gps co-ordinates on Google Earth so we wouldn’t get lost.
Sunrise again bought with it another long day in the saddle, our destination Calvinia, 110kms away. I was thrilled to see the red Kalahari sand start creeping into the landscape but immediately reversed my enthusiasm when I saw how easy it was to get sucked in and spat out onto the roadside by the powdery quick sand. By late afternoon we had made good progress and arrived on the final tar road into Calvinia, the red meat capital of the Karoo. I was starting to notice a common thread in this trip. Ice cold beers at the Calvinia Hotel seemed a good manner to celebrate reaching the most northern point of the journey, before riding around the town trying to find our B&B.
The irony of having a really comfortable night on a trip like this is that the nicer it is the harder it is to leave. And no truer words could be spoken of the Tarantula guest house. The owner Frans has gone out of his way to make an oasis of warmth and luxury in amongst a harsh landscape and I could have quite easily hunkered down there for another few days. But the long road south was calling and we were on the road just after sunrise in anticipation of tackling the big one.
The last two days involved riding directly south from Calvinia to Ceres. At 257kms, the infamous tyre-eating R355 is officially the longest road in South Africa between two towns, or in more direct terms – make sure you’ve filled up before hitting the road because there’s no going back. The first half involved descending the Bloukrans Pass off the plateau into the Tankwa valley followed by long straight dusty dry roads. By early afternoon the temp was already in the upper 30’s, a far cry from the cold late Autumn conditions we’d been expecting and along with it came the endlessly dusty lines of cars approaching at full speed over the horizons. Burners. We hadn’t counted on these late Friday arrivals leaving us choking in their wake but figured we had finally worked the Burn festival out – the Volksie beetles and old school Landrovers that had passed us on Monday were the hard core burners, getting roasted under a blazing African sun in a trance like haze for a full seven days. These we dubbed the “enduro hippies” while the late Friday afternoon speedsters arriving in their once shiny SUV’s were dubbed the “nouveau hippies”, the ones who took the costume out the closet once a year, dusted it off, and headed north after work on a Friday. Regardless of the title, the ambitions were still the same and that night we took a stroll up the hill behind our campsite to stare out over the endless Tankwa, and sure enough – there in the distance, lay a Vegas-like temporary city of neon lights flashing along with the faintly repetitive thud thud thud of a good party on the go.
Our final night was spent in the most magnificent setting on the side of the road, tucked behind the only koppie for 200kms that provided shelter from the dust and a truly memorable sun set over the distant Cederberg. What it lacked in home comforts (not much considering the organisational skills of Elvis & BUD) it made up for in location and we were privileged to lay our heads down under a sky of stars in the middle of nowhere. Evening entertainment was provided by Elvis doing some DIY home-style surgery on a toe nail gone wrong, involving a pair of pliers, a bottle of Dettol and a flask of whiskey. In that order.
Morning light bought with it the last day of our ride. We set off under a spectacular sunrise, clouds glowing pink and orange and a straight road ahead as far as the eye could see. The miles drifted by broken only by morning coffee breaks and a visit to the legendary Tankwa Padstal to stock up on things we didn’t even know we needed. The end of the dust came mid afternoon as we snaked our way out of the Tankwa valley, bidding farewell to an amazing journey as we climbed the last hill before descending the final 30kms into Ceres. The photo stop at the “welcome to Ceres’ sign was an absolute necessity before finding the local pub to celebrate over a hard earned few cold beers and steaks.
It’s always in hindsight that we learn and appreciate and after a week back in the ‘default world’ (to quote the burners) I’m always reminded over and over what a privilege it is to do what we do, to saddle up and ride out over the horizon, returning with memories richer and friendships deeper, making us appreciative of both the world out there and what we have back home.
Some stats and info on the trip -
Total trip was around 860km, the accommodation along the way was absolutely superb, with special thanks to our hosts for always making us feel so welcome –
June’s Place (Self Catering) in Wellington
Coralie at Edenvue in Ceres – www.edenvue.com
Tinda and DeVille at Bizansgat
Nicol & Marina at Blesfontein – www.blesfontein.co.za
Frans at Tarantula Guest House, Calvinia – www.tarantulaguesthouse.co.za
Additional photos courtesy of Andre van der Spuy & Caitlin Lewis
And a special word of thanks to Andre and his staff at Chris Willemse Cycles in Greenpoint for going beyond the extra mile in assisting with some serious and urgent mechanics. It will always be greatly appreciated.
Over the years of living in Cape Town I’ve had the very good fortune of visiting the beautiful Overberg town of Greyton from time to time. It’s one of those step-back-in-time villages, nestled in amongst the mountains that start forming the dividing line of the Klein Karoo and the garden route. At different times of the year it looks like a different place, the dusty streets baking under the summer sun all but completely disappear under the brown autumned oak leaves, the wonderful wet and cold winter days pass by quietly in front of roaring fireplaces and glasses of red wine, while spring brings the village to life in an explosion of colour. I’ve been privileged to experience the town and its surroundings in healthy overdoses, from sipping morning coffees at the numerous village restaurants that spill out from under their canopy of oak trees onto the streets, to the mountains that envelope the village providing a bigger playground than I know what to do with. We’ve had some magic moments out there, from running the trail to Macgregor and back, hiking up to the back range of mountains, spending the entire day abseiling down the Noupoort gorge, and mountain biking around the area.
But it all gets a bit restless and you find yourself unable to sit still and relax, which is part of the lure of the town to start off with and you feel like a walking irony on Monday if your return from a weekend in Greyton more knackered than when you left. So I started trying to figure out ways to get the energy out of the system immediately on arrival. Slay the exercise dragons first, and relax later.
It started off as an innocent request while driving out there one weekend. “Please drop me off half way from the N2 and I’ll see you for coffee just now” The road in to Greyton runs for just over 30kms through a landscape of rolling fields woven together by rivers and dotted with trees, filled with shades of yellows and greens and browns and purples. It was an amazing outing if you’re up for a run where your only company is grazing sheep, cattle, and blue cranes and if you don’t mind slurping from the Sonderend river along the way. I learnt very quickly that running on Chapmans Peak is easy by comparison – the long open country roads need a different mental approach where you can see 5 kms down the road and around into the next valley, not just to the next corner.
That run was really just the catalyst for the next one. “Please drop me off on the corner of the N2. I’ll see you for coffee in three hours time” I wrote it off to training for my first 100 miler and needing those long endless hills but in truth it was just a good reason to get out there and run and drink in that landscape.
This happened a few times over but it was around the time that I got my eager hands on a bike that the ‘pre-Greyton exercise regime’ started taking on disproportionate measures. By now my long suffering wife Lara could just see it coming when I started proposing a change of route altogether to get there. “Lets go via the winelands, it will be much more scenic”. Followed by “while we’re in Franschhoek do you mind dropping me off and I’ll see you for mid afternoon coffee in Greyton” That ride was one of the nicest I’ve had, a long 7km haul up the Franschhoek pass to start off, followed by a beautiful descent down to cross the Du Toit river and ride alongside the dam before getting off the main road onto the quiet country roads leading to the village. I was riding into completely unknown territory, I’d never done this kind of ‘country ride’ before, and I absolutely loved it, the feeling of the big open spaces around me, the big open roads ahead and the big open sky above. I was hooked and from then on we went to Greyton via Franschhoek.
But I knew it was not enough. There has always been this quietly restless urge to get to Greyton, door to door, by means other than car. It’s the purist inside trying to invent this modern day romantic ideal that we can get from A to B without an engine. It took a while to plan, trying to imagine which would be worse – admiring the landscape while fearing for your life along the infamous Baden Powel to link Noordhoek to Franschhoek, or sacrifing the afterlife factor for a longer passage through Cape Town, Durbanville, and Paarl before reaching Franschhoek. In the end reason won (my wife would debate that I have any at all) and after loading the backpack and bike embarked on the long and winding north.
The weeks of 40C temperatures conveniently gave way that morning to soft rain and I was convinced, for at least the first 5kms, that I’d made a brilliant decision, that the weather gods and exercise gods had all shaken hands and agreed on a healthy pat-on-the-back send off out of town for me. Until the first corner on Chapmans peak. For the next 4 hours I had constant head winds that, with the weight of my pack, made every uphill torturously slow going. The changing of the scenery around me, from the clouds billowing up off the distant ocean along the coast road, to rush hour traffic through town (nothing gets a more bewildered look from morning commuters than a scruffy cyclist alongside pulling out a knife to carve a chunk of biltong – its a far cry from the expected sight of a rake-thin figure clad head to foot in matching-leopoard-print-lycra sucking on a meticulously measured energy drink), to the industrial container depots of Paarden Eiland, to the rolling hills of Durbanville and beyond, was proof of the progress, albeit slow, and by early afternoon I’d made my peace with the burden of the backpack as we lumbered along the final few hills towards the campsite on the Berg River near Paarl where I was to meet up with the family.
This is a lovely setting for a night, despite the stadium styled floodlight that came on and illuminated the night sky like twenty full moons all hovering over our tent, and it was good to have some relaxing time before the next day’s long ride. Up early on Saturday, fire up the breakfast and off again on the road to Frasnchhoek. No traveller should pass through here without a quick morning coffee at Sacred Ground, a gem of a discovery along the main road, before tackling the long Franschhoek pass. A healthy winding descent is the reward, made even sweeter this time by savouring a healthy tail wind out past Theewaterskloof dam, and onto the Helderstroom road. It was about 30kms out of Greyton that I realised just how trashed my tyres were after the Freedom Challenge last year, as the sealant suddenly came flying out like a garden irrigation pipe. They were officially beyond sealing anymore, so out came the tube which lasted at least 500m before suffering the same fate. A few nerve-wracking and frustrating few hours followed as the bike limped its way slowly to Greyton, but we arrived early afternoon in good spirits and happy to finally have made the door-to-door trip.
Seweweekspoort. Being a Natal boy who’s understanding of Afrikaans is dismally poor I always thought this was the name of a finely matured port (wine can mature in seven weeks, right?), so when the invitation came to join three good mates, Cobus, Andre, and Stif, to experience this wonder I naturally expected the outing to consist of reclining in a deck chair for the weekend with a pair of braai tongs in one hand and a glass of the fine stuff in the other. I did heed caution when Andre’s emails came in talking of ‘mountain weather forecasts’, and ‘packing the right gear to sleep out on the mountain if we didn’t get back by nightfall’. Now I know that my close friends mostly hover on the brink of madness but how difficult could raising a glass for the entire day be I wondered. And sleeping out if we got lost? Clearly they were planning to go big. Even I can find my way home under desperate and trying circumstances. Who needs a tent.
By Friday evening the bakkie, loaded with hiking gear, bicycles, and a vat of whiskey, with no port to be seen, was trundling its way through an impressive break in the Klein Swartberg mountains. And so the geography and Afrikaans lessons began – a poort is a weakness, apparently, and the road north that passed from the klein karoo to the big karoo through the Seweweekspoort ran along such a geographical feature – no insane zig-zags and man made retaining walls to get over the mountain like its big brother a few miles to the east that runs up the Swartberg pass. This road cuts a natural line through the mountains and is lined on either side by majestic cliff faces that seemed to be twisted and buckling over, laughing at my futile efforts to comprehend the reality around this trip. And then it slowly started sinking in – that tall peak on the left, that’s where we’re headed tomorrow. Not the deck with the braai. In addition to the bilingual geography lesson we all emerged from the poort well educated on the latest Sandra Bullock movie. Stif couldn’t quite recall the title but noted an impressive amount of detail otherwise and highly recommended footing the extra bill for the 3D screening.
Just to set the record straight, most people venture up this peak well prepared and having done plenty of research. We had a flask of whiskey and a laminated A4 map. There is a cave on the south side an hour or two from the summit, where hikers sleep over on the way up, then summit, and return back down. I never quite understood the full implications at the time of announcement but it seemed our plans were to start very early from the south side, bypass the cave, summit, and descend on the northern side. In the same day. Simple in theory, bar from the fact that this was considered by the local farmer, Oom Ben, as quite an ambitious task, bordering on complete lunacy, and if it wasn’t for his bread baking duties that lured him back inside we may have even been convinced over the next hour of pleasant driveway conversation to reconsider our options.
But in true city-slicking style we adopted our hard headed approach and ignored the locals advice, opting to stick to our well researched plan.
5am alarms ring, 6am we are on the road back through the poort and up to the saddle to start the hike. 7am the path fizzles out and I’m seriously wondering if we’re going to be bushwhacking our way for the next 2 days up to the summit.
A path gradually materialises and we ascend past the hut and up to the rain gauge. These might sound like odd things to mention but we were quite relived to find them and know we were on the right path. And the right mountain slope for the matter.
Somewhere along here instinct drove me to suggest a mid-morning coffee stop, my mind was drifting continuously to the cappuccino sachets in my pack but it was around then that I learnt another valuable lesson, this time in the fine art of mountain cuisine. You don’t just make coffee with a side portion of Provita and cheese wedges anymore. Before we could even sit down Cobus was already sharpening his bread knife, had the espresso machine on the boil, and the picnic blanket out with little respect for the fact that we still had a peak to climb after this mountainside feast. Note to self: invite Cobus on the next adventure as the expedition catering manager.
The path then zig-zagged more steeply up onto a ridge that overlooked the poort to our right and an impressive amphitheatre of high peaks to our left. The clouds rolled in and cleared and rolled in and cleared, leaving me hoping quietly that we’d at least time it right and have some views from the top.
The summit plateau is protected by large rock bands that form cliff faces around the mountain, and the next few hours were spent looking for cairns to guide us safely through and up these cliffs, the views getting more and more dramatic and the afternoon gradually ticking slowly by. Eventually at around 4pm the cliffs ran out onto a flat mountain top and in the distance we could see the toppled over beacon. The clouds had cleared and we had the privilege of experiencing views as far as the eye could see, out over the Karoo to the north and the east, and seawards over the klein karoo. A shot of whiskey to celebrate (still no port) before starting the descent down the northern side.
Not much is written about this side of the mountain, other than ‘there is no path’. It was a very deceptive haul, we all estimated it would be a nice gentle downhill back to the cottage arriving easily before nightfall. It was good going down the ridge but then night did fall and the last hour was spent bushwhacking to get straight down the side of the mountain, on very weary legs and running low on water, before finally emerging on the road back to the cottage.
It would be mindless not to mention that the braai didn’t quite happen that evening as we all just sat in a dazed stupor staring at the flames, none of us quite energetic enough to volunteer to flip the boerie so we saved it for the next day and just enjoyed the whiskey (still no port, or Oom Ben’s bread) to celebrate.
The following morning we were back on our bikes to venture through the poort again, with a detour to the brink of the Bosch Luis kloof pass, to get back to the bakkie, before firing up the coals, slapping the wors on, and heading home, all the richer for another great outing with great company.
It had been a week of watching every conceivable weather forecast and prediction, trying to decide if our weekend exercise would consist of a ride, a morning run, or a hike… By Thursday the forecasts were deteriorating sufficiently to show a healthy weather system right on our doorstep that should dump a truck load of snow on the mountain tops before moving on quickly, with good weather tailing. Hopefully. When this happens it’s a treat. In previous snowfalls the days after have mostly been grey and rainy, turning the fluffy white stuff underfoot to ice and slush and making for precarious conditions. Sunshine and a snow covered landscape is a gift not to be wasted. But there was one more ingredient I had been eyeing with eagerness. The moon. With a full moon only a few days earlier, I was desperately hoping for the opportunity to capture through the lens a very very rare combination of clear night skies, moonlight, and snow covered peaks.
Our plans to get out and get some fresh air graduated into one of two options – the standard issue snow run to Victoria Peak, or a hike up and camping out. I was desperately hoping for the latter but with no takers (I couldn’t understand why) it seemed the morning run was the choice, until I got a last minute note that even this was not going to happen and I’d be on my own. I tried numerous friends who were either unavailable at such short notice, or avoiding me (I’m getting more and more of this!), and resigned myself to the fact it was not going to happen at all this time round. For once I listened to instinct, that feeling inside, that said just chill, relax – this is happening for a reason – see what happens in the morning.
And I did. The morning dawned grey and cloudy with intermittent rain that would’ve made a run up into the snow very bleak and I wouldve been guaranteed to lose any remaining friends in the process. Instead I got a surprise nod from brothers Andre and Charl to say they were keen on the overnight camp idea. A quick camera battery charging session followed while packing in record time and we were on the road by early afternoon. The dark clouds brooding above the valley we were aimed for was anything but inviting for a night out up there, and I was having serious second thoughts about the degree of genius thinking behind this dodgy plan. The cherry on the top was the added hour of unexpected hiking from the forestry gate which had been closed and locked at the foot of the valley. Blind bureaucracy just for the fun of it.
It was well after 6pm by the time we had reached the Dwarsberg plateau after the long walk up via the Bergriviersnek. With the dark coming on quickly, and thick clouds enveloping us we didn’t have the luxury of trampling around for hours looking for the perfect camp spot. We sheltered behind some rocks in a valley that was hoped would give us the sunrise and, with some luck, the night time views of the peaks I was dreaming of. It was ambitious and wishful thinking, hoping that all the conditions would materialise into a clear moonlit night surrounded by snow capped peaks, especially after fumbling our way inside the tent shortly after 8, with the clouds now having completely covered us. We were just a tiny orange dot on a big white landscape, hoping to be revealed to the stars at some hour in the night.
The discomfort and cold that crept up from underneath kept us awake constantly – at any hour in the night you could say something and get a coherent reply! Charl was having a quiet fight with his down sleeping bag that left the tent looking like a flock of geese had crash landed in there.
Sometime during the night it suddenly got very light and I unzipped the tent flaps with high hopes of seeing moonlight. And I was not disappointed. The clouds had cleared and the landscape that lay before me took my breath away – the moonlight glistening off the snow, with the massive snow covered caps of Victoria Peak and Emerald Dome looming down. After a 15 minute struggle to get frozen shoes on over frozen feet, I clambered out into the frigid night air to try and capture the scenes I had been dreaming of.
The agonising wait until dawn was broken with spells of clambering out to get photos, and guessing games inside the tent, seeing who was closest to estimating the time. The most common question during the night? “How much longer until dawn”!
We had a magic coffee brewing session as dawn was breaking, and breakfast on the high peak above camp before setting off back into the valley below, tired but all smiles. It will be a long time before we get the privilege of seeing that again.
Another magic outing up to Victoria Peak in the Jonkershoek yesterday with brothers Andre and Charl. After successfully roping me into the Freedom Challenge, it’s great to see Charl start training towards upholding his end of the deal – running the Puffer next year (him being the cyclist and me the runner we thought it would be only fair to swap sports for one race). He’s admittedly been very quiet about putting this out there in public but this could be a well thought out tactic to get to the starting line as a mystery contender – nothing wrong with flying under the radar. And Andre just gets hauled along for entertainment value, as could be witnessed on the video footage of him trying to slide down the snow-slopes.
The route yesterday was one of my favourites, up to the saddle, onto the ridge and then the swift path east to the foot of the peak where we started the final ascent. The conditions made the last part slow going – the snow had frozen in places and was extremely slippery and we had to go step by step, sometimes carving footholds deep into the snow to get a good grip. Once on top we savoured the sun, a good cappuccino made with melted snow (the only way really, and hoping that no-one had pee-d there), watching a small plane buzz so close overhead you could have pelted his windscreen with snowballs, a few snowball fights (there had to be one!) before starting the bum-sliding descent back down.
Another epic run in magic conditions in a truly beautiful part of the world – it will be strange to visit that peak one year in summer – I’ve only ever seen it snow-capped and white.