Like so many wonderful, crazy, inspiring (and sometimes foolish) ideas, this one involved a bottle of wine and some wonderful ebiking friends… Someone (it may have been Debbie. Or perhaps Dave) asked, “why don’t we try some away-rides? You know, like hitting the Karoo for a few days and exploring?” Mmmm, now that’s an idea. And so the Great Camdeboo Ride was born.
If you take the N9 from Middelburg in the Eastern Cape, to Graaff Reinet, you’ll be traversing some of the most beautiful parts of South Africa – wide open spaces, stunning landscape and not much at all in the way of crowds. Actually, there’s not much in the way of anything there – Karoo bossies, the occasional windpomp and a few prickly pear cactuses. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and the Sneeuberg. And of course the Lootsberg and Compassberg. And snow in winter. Searing heat in summer. And space – agoraphobics beware! You simply have to ride it!. So, we took to Google Earth and Tracks4Africa on BaseCamp, and a route through this enchanting environment emerged – about 200km. And we figured a fairly rustig 50km per day should do it.
It was all very well coming up with the idea, a route and accommodation but when we got down to the details in was a little more involved: We would need to spend three nights at relatively equal distances along the route. We’d need food (dinner and breakfast), drink along the way (don’t forget, this area can be incredibly hot – even in April, which is when we intended to ride) and some way to get our belongings from one place to the next. And what would happen if a bike broke down or someone (heaven forbid!) crashed and was not able to ride. Clearly, we’d have to have some sort of backup vehicle but who’d drive it?
Eventually we decided on Howard’s double-cab Land Cruiser pickup and my bike trailer. Each of the 3 couples on the ride would have a day to drive (how they split that up would be up to them) and on the final 60km into Graaff Reinet, we’d each drive 10km. Seemed like a nice plan… The other cars would be left in Middelburg and we’d catch a lift with Howard back to Middelburg on his way back to KwaZulu Natal from Graaff Reinet.
We were going into some pretty remote territory and one of our overnight stays (Letskraal) didn’t have electricity so we also took along 2 portable generators – mine a 650W and Howard’s – an 850W. In the end, they worked perfectly, my little Ryobi charging both our Yamaha powered Haibikes in one sitting. We also took along 4, 5l bottles of water (which, with hind site, was probably a little too much but we really didn’t want to run out of water en route).
As none of us had ridden or driven these roads before we plotted tracks in BaseCamp and uploaded them to my Garmin Montana 650 which we used to navigate the routes.
We agreed to meet at Celtis Country Lodge in Middelburg on a Saturday afternoon. Celtis is a great little place for an overnight stop – secure, comfortable with really helpful and pleasant staff. Everyone arrived at about the same time – all in good cheer and impatient to get going. Over supper we drew straws to see who would drive the backup vehicle, when. Last minute bike checks were done, chains lubed and kit sorted for a leisurely departure the next morning.
Sunday morning dawned cold and grey – not the kind of weather we were expecting but better than searing heat. Celtis dished up a fine spread of eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomato and boerewors (were were in the Karoo, after all), and fine, strong coffee. We were a festive bunch that headed out west on the R398, Pat in the Cruiser leading the way until she disappeared into the distance on her mission – coffee and rusks at the halfway point after which it would be Roger’s turn at the wheel.
Middleburg was established in 1852 by the then Cape Colonial Government, its name coming from the fact that it is midway between Graaff Reinet and Colesberg. It’s also halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg, and halfway between Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein. But there’s more: It seems that around 20:00 on the night of 12 November 1972 a group of soldiers at the Rosmead military base noticed some rotating red lights near the duty room but they (the lights) disappeared before they could investigate. About the same time the local headmaster, a Mr Herold Truter, also noticed red lights above a nearby ridge and at the school’s tennis court. Upon investigation he found that the tar court had melted in patches and fragments of the tar were later found over 180m away, and to make matters even more intriguing some nearby Eucalyptus trees were badly burnt, dying soon afterwards. A possible USO landing? Aliens in the Karoo? All very interesting – no other explanation has been forthcoming.
It was lovely to be cruising along this little used road – the bikes were sorted, power assistance at it’s lowest and all quiet save for the crunch of knobblies on the gravel and the occasional chat or smart-arse comment. Mist and cloud hang off the range of mountains to our south like old man’s beard from a forest tree, and all was well. Things got even better when the cruiser appeared in the distance, steam pouring out of the kettle, coffee waiting for our arrival.
Time for a driver change and again we set off heading for our first overnight stop – Asemskep, an Afrikaans word meaning to “take a breath”. Asemskep is a typical, rambling Karoo Farmhouse set amongst trees, grazing lands and a few barns and sheds. There was not a soul about – owner Beulah Meyer had said that, if there was no-one to welcome us to just move in and make ourselves at home. And so we did, thrilled to note that a large melktert had been left for us.
A lovely craft gin and tonic took care of much of the afternoon but after surfacing there was enough light left to go for a short evening ride before supper. Beulah had made dinner for us (at a small fee) – plaaskos she called it – simply delicious! We washed it down with some excellent wines that we had brought along. The bikes, chains lubed and checked, were also feeding, charge lights blinking in the background.
Everyone was raring to go and so, after another scrumptious plaaskos meal by Beulah we picked up the trail south on the… well, it doesn’t seem to have a route name. The road splits a few kilometres from Asemskep – to the left, the shorter route to our next stop, Nieu Bethesda. And to the right, the scenic route around the western side of Compassberg.
At 2505m Compassberg, in the Sneeuberg range, is the highest mountain in South Africa outside of the Stormberg/Drakensberg massif and is quite an icon in the region. Enough of these easy, smooth rides! Our route would take us up the western slopes of the mountain into some even more remote areas (there was a little, rutted track, signposted Compassberg, heading off to the left but, in spite of longing glances from Dave and Howard, sanity prevailed and we gave it a miss). Road signs were few and far between and the fences on either side of the road disappeared. Those lovely smooth gravel roads of yesterday gave way to a narrow, rocky track that wound its way onto the high ground. Power buttons were nudged up a notch and there was somewhat less banter as we concentrated on keeping things on the strait and narrow.
We’d been going for about 2 hours when we came across Debbie with the Land Cruiser that she had parked in a grove of poplar trees, autumn leaves floating down like huge yellow and orange snowflakes. In the chilly overcast weather coffee and rusks were most welcome and before long we were on the bikes again, climbing even higher into the Sneeuberg. The road improved: Got a little wider. And a little smoother. And, it seemed we had climbed as much as we were going to for the day. And then there was this large electric gate across the road. Not one of us expected that! And not one of us felt like the very long ride around the eastern side of Compassberg. A large sign said, “Enter Code to Open”. What code?
“What’s that green button?” asked Debbie looking at a post on the side of the road. I pushed it and, oh, joy of joys, the gate slid open…
It was a glorious ride down to Nieu Bethesda, much of it down hill. The bikes cruised along on minimum power, the views and scenery, just stunningly beautiful. There’s a bit of a pull before dropping down into the town but nothing too hectic. It was a little early to move into our overnight accommodation, and someone had mentioned that The Brewery served awesome food and even better beer, so off we went – it’s across the river and down a side road.
The menu is a delight – there are three different ales (a crisp slightly bitter Karoo Ale, the slightly sweeter Honey Ale and the smoky dark Roasted Ale) and the choice of food revolves around cheese (like the beer, made by Andre, the owner). You can have the cheese platter or, you guessed it, the cheese platter. Short work was made of both the ales and platters – we devoured them. Superb!
We met up later with wildlife artist, David Langmead and his charming wife Bronwen who own Starry Nights Guesthouse. It was great to see them again and we chattered wildlife, art, wine and the best route out the next morning.
Initially we had 3 routes to choose from to get from Nieu Bethesda to our next overnight stop, Letskraal Guest Farm. Alas, our preferred route was no longer open to the public which left 2 – a shorter, more direct route of about 45km and a longer, more scenic one of about 58km. What to do? At breakfast we made the decision. We were here to ride in this magnificent countryside – what were we thinking?! And off we went, alas, the first 20km or so on paved roads but … C’est la vie. What it did involve was the Rubidge Kloof Pass and a rather speedy descent off the high ground to the crossing with the N9 between Graaff Reinet and Middelburg. Not clever but it was fun!
Further along the track Joy had decided to offer coffee next to a rather magnificent, double story, Cape-Dutch farmhouse that popped up in the middle of nowhere. At this point, save for the little luminous green line on the GPS, we had absolutely no idea where we were headed. When we came to a sign on the side of the road warning of dangerous wild animals and it included an outline of a buffalo, it got us riding in a tight, silent group, all peering into the shade under the riverine bush to see if anything moved. Eventually something did move and it turned out to be a herd of giraffes. We stopped and they watched us for a while before cantering off in that lovely slow gait of theirs – too beautiful to behold.
Onwards we went. Alone. It was wonderful.
We got to Letskraal Guest Farm. Not too sure what we were expecting but really, it was quite wonderful. The beautifully restored old homestead was originally owned by the Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius and was built over 200 years ago. It’s billed as a self catering facility but owner Johan Minnaar very kindly offered to purchase and deliver groceries that housekeeper Lydia would cook for us for a small fee. Roast chicken, beef or mutton? Well, we were in the Karoo weren’t we… Mutton it was, with roast potatoes, rice, peas and butternut, washed down with some of the Cape’s finest and finished off with Malva pudding and strong moer koffee. What a meal!!! And Lydia was a complete hit – everyone loved her.
The road got worse. A lot worse. The climb (all 450m of it) to the top of Elandskloof Pass was rutted and rocky, challenging the less experienced riders in the group. We all made it to the top though and were astonished at the views over the mountains to the west. We posed for a team photo, chatted, marvelled at what we had done and set off on the long down run into Graaff Reinet and the end of the ride. It had gone beautifully.
And then there was that unmistakable, chilling sound of a bike going down. Joy, just for a second, was not paying attention, and grabbed a little to much front brake. Over she went. We were devastated! Why couldn’t it have been one of the guys where these things don’t seem to matter so much? Grazed, shaken and bruised, we quickly administered first aid and bundled her and her Giant Liv into the back of the Cruiser (not Joy! She rode in front with Pat). I must say that a somewhat more demure group tackled the downhill side of Elandskloof Pass. And Erasmuskloof Pass that appeared a few km later. This incident did give us pause for thought: A backup vehicle on this sort of ride is essential, as is a proper first aid kit. It happened so fast and unexpectedly that we were all decidedly rattled by it.
A strong westerly wind had sprung up and we hacked into it, very grateful for the pedal assist bikes. The road, for the last 20km or so had become rather badly corrugated which, combined with the wind, stretched one’s good and serene nature to the limit. But Graaff Reinet and our accommodation at The Townhouse were nigh and so were hot showers, baths and a rather splendid meal. Oh, and ice cold beer. Holding that thought we pedalled on and arrived on a high note, our epic journey suddenly at an end.
Route distance: The total distance is 212.5km and the individual legs as follows:
Middelburg to Asemskep: 39.3km.
Asemskep to Nieu Bethesda: 50.7km.
Nieu Bethesda to Letskraal: 60,5km.
Letskraal to Graaff Reinet: 62km.
Route Conditions: These are pretty remote roads and, at times, there’s no cell phone reception. Riding is good, the roads for the most part are smooth but there are rocky sections and some fairly steep climbs. There are 2 biggish river crossings that were easy considering that we rode this in the dry season. This could change after rain. A backup vehicle is recommended as is a mobile phone (a Satellite phone would be nice) and a GPS. Make sure you have adequate water and sustenance for the rides.
Asemskep Farm Stay: S31° 36.733′ E24° 40.273′
Starry Nights Guest House: S31° 51.735′ E24° 33.136′
Letskraal Farm Stay: S32° 03.088′ E24° 49.339′
The Townhouse, Graaff Reinet: S32° 14.982′ E24° 31.853′
Download the GPX tracks below:
If you’d like to see more of our mountain biking photographs,