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.