In 2018 a group of us rode from Middelburg to Graaff Reinet through the Karoo in the Eastern Cape, exploring the remote backroads of this wild part of South Africa. What a truly wonderful time we had - check out the ride here.
Now, it's 2019 and time for another expedition: Between 1 and 6 March 2019 a group of 8 of us, all friends and riding buddies, rode 270km from Calitzdorp to Montagu in the Western Cape Karoo. The route took in some astounding beauty and remoteness: the peaks of the Rooiberg Mountains, vast semi-desert plains, the kloofs and gorges of the Swartberg Mountains and wild animals like mountain reedbuck, oryx, eland and more.
1 March 2019
One of the main issues with this type of ride is getting everyone back from the end point - back to where we left the cars. A juggling act for sure! To solve this we had decided to leave Dave and Joy's car in Montagu from where they could leave for an onward trip to Namibia. We had agreed to collect them there and take them back to Calitzdorp where the rest of the team would be meeting later in the day.
In the end, everyone arrived at pretty much the same time, unloading what seemed like an awful lot of bikes, spares, food, cameras and clothing into the lounge of The Calitz where we were spending the night. And so, the sorting began... We'd have Bruce and Sharon's Land Rover Discovery and their recently customised bike trailer as backup vehicle for the trip, while Tony and Sue's car as well as ours would remain in Calitzdorp. Thank heavens for the Discovery! It swallowed a huge amount of luggage, food and water, things like bike spares, generators, fuel etc, loaded onto the bike trailer.
We fiddled, faffed, lubed chains and generally messed about before some wise soul suggested beers at the pool - a remarkably fine idea - we complied instantly!
We ambled off later to dinner, just down the road, at Zamani's where they do a fine babootie and other traditional SA food. Conversation as you can well imagine revolved around mountain biking and, tackling Rooiberg Pass the next day - quite a daunting obstacle for those who hadn't ridden it before.
2 March 2019
The weather forecast had promised cool and overcast conditions for the first day of riding on the Giant Little Karoo Trek. It was not to be of course...
After a really delicious breakfast at the Rose of the Karoo a gaggle of excited riders set off on the tar road south out of Calitzdorp - along the Gamka River. All was good and the crew chatted away, pleased to finally be out on the road. About 13km out of town you take a right and head towards Rooiberg Pass and Groenfontein Nature Reserve.
Rooiberg Pass, winding its way through the beautiful, 60 000ha Rooiberg Conservancy, was built in the late 1920s and joins the tiny hamlet of Van Wyksdorp with Calitzdorp on Route 62. It's not a pass to be trifled with! The road, depending on the state of maintenance, can be rough, rutted, rocky and steep in places. You could probably do it in a sedan if it had enough clearance, but a bakkie or 4X4 are very much the better options, certainly if you are pulling a trailer like we were. It's 14km long, rises to an altitude of 798m, offering beautiful views of the Swartberg to the north and the Outeniqua mountains to the south.
For some rather odd reason, we had the idea in our heads that once we'd crested the summit of the pass it would be downhill, all the way to Van Wyksdorp. It's not! The temperature rose inexorably as we left our tea stop at the top of the pass and started "downhill". The several longish climbs came as a bit of a surprise to say the least, but the road goes through some rather wonderful scenery and we were urged onwards by the thought of the ice cold beers waiting to be had at Spekboom Restaurant in the town.
So much for the cool, cloudy weather!
Distance for the day: 54km
3 March 2019.
After the heat of the previous day we elected to head out much earlier to make the most of the cool. And cool it was as we peddled west out of Van Wyksdorp, the rising sun casting long, warm light across the dry, parched veld. A few kilometres out of town we took a left towards Mond van Pietsrivier. Mmmmm, we'd never heard of it either and, on Googling it, found out that "it is a farmstead and is located in Eden District Municipality, Western Cape, South Africa". Well, now we know...
Our routing would take us sort-of-along the Groot River, turning right onto the R323 for a few hundred metres before turning left onto a small farm road and onwards, across the R62 to Vensterskrans farm. Here we'd begin the climb through the Buffelsdrif Conservancy to the slopes of Touwsberg and Rietfontein Guest Farm, where we'd spend the night. (A good alternative should Rietfontein not be available is Wolverfontein Karoo Cottages and, being a little further along, would shorten day 3 of the ride. More of this later).
The riding was way easier than the day before - long, undulating Karoo gravel roads, nary a car or person to be seen, only the occasional sheep, ostrich and windmill for company. The Little Karoo, where we were riding, is separated from the Great Karoo by the east, west Swartberg Mountain range and is a 290-km-long valley between 40 and 60 km wide. To the south is the continuous Langeberg-Outeniqua range - to the east are the Outeniqua and at some point, to the west of George, it seems they arbitrarily become the Langeberg. The R62 between Montagu and Oudtshoorn is a major tourist route with a good supply of busses, road trippers, padstallejies and fashionable restaurants, but leave the main route and take to the small winding back roads and you'll have the place to yourself.
We crossed the R62 and turned north into the Buffelsdrif Conservancy, now climbing up to Touwsberg and Rietfontein Guest Farm. Owner, Charel Schreuder, was there to welcome us and showed the crew to our accommodation - a lovely setting, pepper trees providing shade and a large sparkling pool to keep things cool. In no time at all we were ensconced in the pool sipping frosties, the serenity and bliss interrupted only when a huge Cape Cobra was spotted basking on the rock cairn at the end of the pool. While not all will appreciate it, it was a stunning specimen - a deep yellow/orange. Wish we could have spent more time with it but it quickly slithered off into the scrub.
Distance for the day: 66.5km
4 March 2109
The toughest day by far - with a small hiccup in the beginning, which was to have repercussions later in the day...
The ride to Anysberg from Touwsberg Nature Reserve starts with a lovely, gentle, 7km downhill cruise. Some of us put our ears back, giving it horns, enjoying the speed and exhilaration in the fresh, cool early morning air. We were probably 4 km into the ride when the radio call came: "Sue has a puncture" So back we went - almost back to base.
Tony has done this before and, with practiced ability found the culprit - a large acacia thorn - and had a new tube in and pumped before you can say "Haibike Sduro FullNine RX ebike". We stopped to shoot a few pics at a windmill on the side of the road and continued down into the valley and loosely followed the Touws River, and later the Prins River through a narrow poort, reminiscent of Seweweekspoort that brought back wonderful memories of a ride that we'd done with Dave and Joy a year before.
The route took us in a huge arc around the western and northern sides of the Touwsberg massif, and we stopped for breakfast alongside a deserted farmhouse, an old windmill creaking in the gentle breeze. It's always a bit of a gamble deciding on what food to take on these long rides. We eventually decided on cheese and tomato sandwiches (made each night before we left, the tomato added at the stop so things didn't't turn soggy), hardboiled eggs, apples, and coffee and tea. Seemed to work just fine and none of us "hit the wall" on the trip.
We hung a left when we came to the P315 and began the climb up to Anysberg, cracking 2 passes on the way - Die Outol Pass (775m) and the Klein Swartberg Pass (708m). Power was used - I think we all nudged up the power settings a notch and the battery charge bars dropped a block or two surprisingly quickly.
Die Outol Pass was, during the 1880s, a toll road and it's likely that it was built by Thomas Bain, who built the Klein Swartberg Pass just to the north of it. The original dry stone walling supporting the road can still be seen near the top of the pass and, while it is not very steep (a 1:36 gradient), it goes on for 8,5km! There are a few nice corners on the descent (watch out for loose gravel) before you tackle the steeper Klein Swartberg Pass. After that the road straightens out and the entrance to Anysberg Nature Reserve is on the left.
This rugged, rocky, semi‐arid World Heritage Site was proclaimed in 1990 and covers just under 80 000ha of wonderful Cape Fold Mountain habitats. Huge vistas, mountains, plains, deep valleys and dramatic gorges make this a "must do" destination and, while the game viewing is not stunning (and, really, Anysberg is not about game viewing - rather about the environment, big skies and solitude) we did have good sightings of eland, hartebeest, kudu and springbok.
The chalets, where we stayed, are some 22km from the entrance gate. The condition of the road initially was quite good - some sandy patches, a few mild corrugations and the occasional bump. But after a short while things went rather pear-shaped... The mild corrugations became, well, not mild. The sand was deeper at times, making riding tricky and the surface, decidedly rocky in places. Added to this was the state of some of our batteries. This was particularly worrying for us on the older bikes with 400wh batteries and it wasn't long after entering the reserve that the last bar on the battery indicator started to blink. This was not good!
In the end, the newer bikes with healthy 500wh batteries made it to camp, but for the rest of us the pedal assist came to an abrupt end with about 3km to go. This was such an insignificant distance after all the kilometres we had already tackled, but at this stage the idea of pushing a 25kg dead-weight ebike over a very gnarly track in the heat of a Karoo day did not bear thinking of! After some discussion we loaded Sue and Pat's bikes onto the trailer and Sue squeezed into the jam-packed Discovery with Dave, who was the backup driver for this stretch. Pat used Dave's bike (which had some battery left) and I hung onto the trailer and was towed the last few kilometres into camp. Interestingly, if the puncture had not happened all those hours ago and we didn't need to backtrack we'd have made it all the way. And, if we'd stayed at Wolverfontein Karoo Cottages, about 8km closer to Anysberg, we'd also have made the ride. Ces't la vie...
We braaied again that night, a couple of jackal calling from time to time in the distance. A bazillion stars gazed down at us, all very comfortable in our Cape Nature cottages and later, in the stillness of the Karoo night, a soft choir of snores could be heard. We all slept well.
Distance for the day: 79km
5 March 2019
The sun peeped up from behind Towerkop in the distance as we set out on the final leg of the Giant Little Karoo Trek. Long shafts of warm light highlighted the dry Karoo bossies and, in the distance, the Matjiesgoedberg Mountains. Thankfully the road to the west of the camp was in far better condition than to the east, and we made good time in spite of stopping off at one of the rather interesting quartz fields to examine the various succulents growing there. These are incredibly sensitive environments, with many tiny plants that are only obvious on close inspection, so we avoided stomping about in our hard riding shoes as far as possible.
Once we cleared the reserve we were back on good district roads with no traffic to speak of - just one or two farm bakkies. We'd heard that once we reached the top of Ouberg Pass it was downhill all the way. That seemed a bit of an over statement as it was 25km from Montagu. Surely not...? The climb up the northern slopes of the pass (1014m) was mild and manageable, the occasional rather steep descent making for some fun and exhilaration. Once we had crested the pass though things get interesting. The gradient is 1:14 and you drop almost 500m in just under 8km. The decent needs a little care as things can very easily run away with you and you could find yourself going into corners a little hot - a little too fast for comfort. There are no barriers - just huge drop-offs. Brakes need to be feathered and alternated to prevent overheating, and in spite of taking things easy, my discs had turned a deep blue when we stopped for a break about half way down.
And, yes it was pretty much downhill all the way to Montagu! A lovely finish to the ride. Michelle and Jeroen from Long Acres Cottages in Montagu welcomed us warmly, helping us unload the vehicle and getting bikes safely stowed away in their large garage. The place was sublime - cool, green and spacious. Celebratory G&Ts were had and off we went for an afternoon zzzz.
Dinner that night was with Grant and Anne (old friends from our Howick days) at the Mystic Tin and the local craft beer really was a hit!
Distance for the day: 73km
The Giant Little Karoo Trek.
What a special ride! It's difficult to put the experience into words - 8 friends riding 270km through some of the most deserted, wonderful, beautiful (and hot) parts of South Africa! An experience that will live with all of us for a long time I think!
There were 4 Haibikes, 2 Giants and 2 Treks on the ride, some fairly new while others, like our Haibike Sduro FullNine RX bikes, having just under 6 000km on the odometers, a little older. We covered about 2 200 bike kilometres on the ride and had one puncture and 2 minor "offs". Incredible really!
Maintenance consisted on the whole of cleaning and lubricating the chains etc each evening.
The route we took
Just a few thoughts and ideas that went into the planing of the Giant Little Karoo Trek:
One of the most important things is a backup vehicle in case someone gets hurt, just doesn't feel like riding or has a breakdown. In any case it’s there to haul luggage, tea, coffee, tools and generators, which we needed at Rietfontein (they only have solar power).
Each couple would share driving and tea/coffee preparation en route each day. We drew straws in Calitzdorp to establish who drives when.
We had 2 generators. My little Ryobi (just enough to charge 2 bikes) and Bruce's Yamaha, which at 2.2Kw was enough to charge all 8 bikes at the same time.
We were able to have meals in restaurants in Calitzdorp, Van Wyksdorp and Montagu and we braaied at Rietfontein and Anysberg.
Before each day's riding we had a light "breakfast" (oats, Futurelife, toast, yoghurt etc) and cheese and tomato sandwiches, boiled eggs, apples, tea/coffee and Joy's awesome fruitcake en route. We also carried at least 20l of water in the backup vehicle.
We took along a small gas stove and kettle to boil water en route.
We used Bruce's fridge in the car to keep things cool and used our Wild Coolers cool-box to keep the braai meat frozen.
We each carried small, basic first aid kits on our bikes.
Sunscreen was applied liberally and we used K-Way arm coolers to help keep cool and to protect our arms from the sun.
Just one brief moment...
These lists are by no means complete but are included to simply jog the memory.
Bike Kit Packing List
Battery charger (1 for each bike)
Battery keys (and a spare set)
Bombs and connection valves
Brake Pads (spare)
Chain links (for correct number of gears)
Display battery (Yamaha - CR2032)
Double adaptor (to charge 2 batteries)
First Aid Kit
Tubeless Puncture kit
Tyre Levers (those little plastic ones)
Personal Packing List
Hydration pack/water bottles
Shoes - casual
Watches (sports - to upload ride to Strava)
The Giant Little Karoo Trek Photographs
These are just some of the pics we shot while riding the Giant Little Karoo Trek. (Click a thumbnail to open a slideshow.)
All photography by Roger and Pat de la Harpe Photography.