Annual holidays back in the Mother City, designed to escape from icy UK conditions over the festive season, usually morph into a frenzied attempt to see as many friends and family who can be crammed into the short time available. On this occasion however I was determined to spend more time engaged in outdoor activities, far from the madding crowd, so to speak. My hiking friend Ralph Pina had proposed a cycle tour in a semi-desert natural region of South Africa known as the Karoo (a Khoisan word, origin unknown). Ralph, an active member of the Volunteer Wildfire Services Jonkershoek (near Stellenbosch), was recently put through his paces in a training exercise, so I should have known what was in store when he picked the route we were going to tackle, a circular route from Ladysmith through Seweweekspoort to Anysberg and back again.
Despite suggesting “we are not going to kill ourselves – it will be a leisurely, relaxing 3-day cycle”, alarm bells ought to have rung when distances of the order of 100 km per day began to ease their way into the plan. With little in the way of options, it was in the hands of the Gods and our abilities. The route was, for all intents and purposes, a fait accompli.
The associated lifestyle over the course of a year contracting in Ireland, which involved weekly trips back to the UK, had taken its toll on my fitness levels, so with a significant weight disadvantage on my mate, I knew I was being “taken for a ride”.
Fortunately, Ralph’s brother-in-law, a veteran at cross-country cycling, who had very kindly lent me his carbon-fibre off-road bicycle, was no longer joining us – “a leisurely cycle”, apparently, does not exist in his vocabulary. A summer heatwave was forecast over the next few days, to compound matters somewhat. Within a couple of days of arriving in the country, as a preparation exercise on successive days prior to our cycle trip, in temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, I had managed a walk to Elephant’s Eye as well as a cycle in Tokai Forest above the Arboretum.
Problems beset us before we had even left Stellenbosch early Friday morning, with the temperamental tubeless rear tyre registering a flat. Having sorted it out at a local cycle shop after fitting a tube, we headed off towards Ladismith, a drive of some four hours, stopping for lunch in Barrydale, a village located on the border of the Overberg and Klein Karoo regions. Travelling along the R62 from Barrydale, the unmistakable cleft peak of Towerkop comes into view from many miles away. First climbed in 1885 by a 23 year old Ladismith man, Gustav Nefdt, a feat that was not repeated until 1947, the mountain still draws the adventurous.
We parked the off-road vehicle at sheltered parking at the Route 62 café mid-afternoon, offloading the bicycles and gear, the searing heat all too evident at this early stage. Ralph had purchased a brand-spanking new off-road hybrid bicycle, complete with panniers. A rucksack on my back that included a tent and inflatable mattress soon proved impractical and unstable, as we continued on the R62 until we reached Zoar, where we treated ourselves to an ice-cold coca cola at a side-road café, located on the outskirts of the local township founded in the early 1800’s by the Berlin Mission.
Just 25 km east of Ladismith, the impressive Seweweekspoort links the Klein and Great Karoo. Our destination was Aristata Seweweekspoort, the only accommodation in the poort itself, which Ralph had booked for the night. Soon after leaving the tarred road along the R323 before encountering a four-wheel drive vehicle, the driver, Mark le Roux, an off-road cyclist himself, having driven by earlier, offered to turn around and take my rucksack to the Aristata entrance, a jolly decent gesture in itself, having surmised that I was struggling with the unwieldy load on my back. We rested a bit upon reaching a stream crossed by a bridge.
To our astonishment, our host at Aristata, Hein, a local who lived in a small house on the property along with his family and tended the property, had cycled to the entrance of the poort to meet us. Glancing upwards from the winding gravel road that runs through the poort for some 20 km, the tortured folds of the sandstone mountains of the Klein Swartberg mountain range are awe inspiring. Seweweekspoort Peak, the highest in the province at 2 325 metres, rises up above. Adam de Smidt, brother in law to the well-known Thomas Bain, built a wagon and horse road in 1860, even though a route had existed since 1800.
No sooner had we reached the dwelling tucked in the narrow gorge, we jumped into the natural pool constructed to allow water from the mountain streams above to flow into it, just before the heavens opened up. Cumulus clouds had built up throughout the day and a thunderstorm ensued, the rain pouring down amidst the lightening and thunderclaps. It’s a delightful setting, highly recommended. We cooked our dinner and turned in for the night.
A change in the plan was called for at this early stage as I made the decision to ditch my rucksack and half my stuff along with it, instead taking over Ralph’s smaller, lighter rucksack. Hein was keen to chat and had a story or two to tell. He related an incident during which he had been cycling down the road meandering through the poort, with his wife sitting on the handle bars. Just as he rounded a corner, a startled leopard stood transfixed in the middle of the road. Hein couldn’t brake so he yelled for all he was worth. The leopard made off into the mountains.
The next morning the tyre problems surfaced yet again, with a flat on the front on this occasion. We decided to risk trying one of Ralph’s size 29″ tubes on a size 26″ tyre, before setting off on the R323 that would take us in the direction of Anysberg, just as the sun began to creep down the gorge, reaching the road. Hein was keen to accompany us until we had exited the top end of the poort near Towerkop Nature Reserve, where the regional route runs west, parallel to and north of the Klein Swartberg Mountain before it swings north-east into Laingsburg. Soon after pointing out a valuable, hidden source of water just off the roadside, Hein bad us farewell and headed back. Soon we were rewarded with a bonus in terms of being able to free-wheel all the way down Horlosiekrans. The oversized tube seemed to be holding out. It was certainly not the sort of place where one would want to have a blow-out.
By lunchtime the heat had taken its toll and we found ourselves sheltering under trees at a freshly-constructed but deserted community centre in the middle of nowhere along the R323. This was intended as a lunch stop however my appetite for food….and cycling, I hasten to add, had all but evaporated. Ralph managed to siphon water from a tank just up the hillside, before continuing. Finally, drained of all energy by temperatures reaching 41 degrees, we stopped once again. Managing to flag down the driver of a four-wheel drive vehicle, a local farmer, we were dropped off at the Rooikloof turn-off on the R323. Advised to free-wheel to shelter at the entrance to the Rookloof gorge until late afternoon, we rested for a while. We still had some 20 km to go to reach the entrance to Anysberg Nature Reserve. Ralph had booked accommodation located a further 6 km within the reserve at Tapfontein (see brochure) and was concerned that the gate at the entrance to the reserve would be shut and vacated by staff, therefore jeopardizing our booking, so he was anxious to press on.
I couldn’t get Ralph’s parting words “don’t let me down” out of my head. Perhaps this was a motivating factor. I waited another half an hour before mustering the courage and the will to continue. By now I was so exhausted that walking and pushing the bicycle up hills of any note were occurring with more regular frequency. Further on, after free-wheeling down another mountain pass past the entrance to a private farm, I stopped once more.
A woman in a passing car informed me that she had seen Ralph about a kilometre down the road, apparently also burnt out. At this stage the shadows were getting longer. I hadn’t gone much further when I finally pulled over and waited until the sun vanished behind the distant hills. I lay there, contemplating how we got ourselves into this dilemma, until the mosquitoes began bothering me. Soon it was dark save an almost full moon. Expletives alone could describe how I felt. Then I heard the hum of a distant engine and the lights of a car appeared. A sedan pulled up with a group of local folk on their way from Beaufort West.
They were keen to help however logistically, we had a problem, as the bicycle, even sans the wheels, couldn’t fit into the back. With the driver managing to squeeze it onto the laps of the three sitting in the back, with me occupying the front passenger seat, they took me to the entrance gate at Anysberg. I thanked them and in the pitch dark, cycled down the dust road past some ghost-like small cottages illuminated by the moonlight. I had no inkling as to whether I would still meet up with Ralph in this wilderness but imagined him now well-fed, showered and refreshed at Tapfontein cottages.
As a forest of trees loomed large before me, I suddenly heard a voice call out my name from the darkness. It was the blighter himself, from the confines of his tent! Exhausted, he had gone as far as he could, Tapfontein a distant aspiration.
Using a torch, I searched for an open space of ground however as Ralph warned me, each was infested with nest of large ants. Disturbed, they emerged from the soil in one frenzied army. Thorns and inch and a half in length lurked where grassy patches existed. I pitched the inner shell of my tent but decided not to risk using my inflatable mattress.
Ralph had climbed a fence surrounding a small circular reservoir to fill his water-bottle. We then boiled some water for tea, whilst attempting to block out the taste of the brackish water with a generous dollop of condensed milk. I probably slept a bit but I was restless all night. Without water, I remained thirsty. Mosquitoes buzzed around the outside of my tent. Baboons barked in the distance. I constantly heard scratching noises propagating through my inflatable pillow, as if something was attempting to burrow its way through the underside of my tent. Perhaps they were ants. I awoke in the middle of the night and found myself with a sore back and shivering with cold. It had turned chilly.
Attempting to turn over, I suddenly cramped up. As it grew lighter, the birds, crickets and other insects made an almighty din. In the light we boiled water for breakfast. I climbed over the fence and filled the water-bottles from the reservoir, which were so hot they almost buckled, so we cooled them in one of a number of stagnant water puddles in a nearby virtually dried-out stream. Biting the bullet, we were on our way, but not before plunging into the cool water of a muddy pool near the Anysberg exit. The route from here towards Ladismith involved a steady climb up a winding road. From here we were once more treated to a exhilarating downhill section of some length, which we hoped would continue all the way into Ladismith. Alas, this was not to be. As the morning temperatures climbed rapidly, once more we found ourselves scrambling for shelter under some trees.
Egged on by the possibility of water further down the road which, according to the map, appeared to cross a river, Ralph pressed on. I soon followed. We passed the turn-off to the road leading from Montagu. Orchards lined the Grootrivier off the road about 1 km to our left. Just past a subway station, as we reached the tarred road, I suffered a puncture. We had only covered about 24 km from the Anysberg exit.
Ralph was in no mood to play the hero at this point. We sheltered once more in a ditch, pestered by flies. We pondered our options 26 km shy of Ladismith. One was to call a taxi however lack of mobile signal put paid to that. An hour went by. Just then our saviours arrived. A local municipality bakkie came by with oodles of space on the back for two bicycles, despite one or two workers occupying the rear. We waved them down for a lift. They were more than willing to put us out of our misery. Given all the generosity I had witnessed over the course of 3 days, this was undoubtedly the season of goodwill – these guys wouldn’t even accept money for the trouble they went to! We got back to where we had parked our Toyota Hilux, making a beeline for the Route 62 café.
Over the next hour or more we binged on everything in an attempt to quench our thirst. Commencing with a 2-litre bottle of lemonade, this was followed by a bowl each of ice-cream, a pot of tea, some fruit salad and ice-cream and, lastly, a glass of ice-cold water.
Ralph called the owner of Arista in Seweweekspoort to make a booking for the night however he seemed to be unavailable. In any event, we needed to pick up my rucksack I had entrusted to Hein. We headed out on the R62 to Zoar, though the road looked unrecognizable to me – I must have been focused whilst on the bicycle two days before. We surprised Hein and some Sunday afternoon guests, who were at the swimming pool at the time. We jumped into the water and just as two days before, the rain bucketed down almost as if it had been choreographed.
The next day we took a drive to Gamkapoort Dam over Bosluiskloof Pass (also built by Adam de Smidt), a drive of some 30 km, winding between the Swartberg and the Elandberg mountain ranges, defining the border between the Great and Klein Karoo.
To quote descriptions elsewhere:
“Take a moment at the pinnacle of the pass before descending, as the view placed before one of blue grey mountain peaks, cones and jagged hills is inspiring. Bosluiskloof descends from its heights into what appears to be a desolate valley, a landscape better attributed to another unworldly planet, and Gamkapoort Dam.
Other than an occasional thatched house, there is nothing else. The dam is deserted. This is not like other dams in South Africa where people hang out on the banks and enter into any number of water sports. Out here one is either struck dumb with a sense of awe at the stillness and rugged beauty of the place, or one beats a hasty retreat, frightened at the silence and the space, intent on finding civilization”.
Of course, there are some cottages available for hire, which lie in the Gamkapoort Nature Reserve, located at the original entrance to Gamkaskloof (Die Hel). They are run by a maverick hermit who has assumed legendary status, who goes by the name of Fox L Ledeboer or “Fox” for short. Ralph had previously bumped into him whilst kayaking at the dam. A genial character and canoeist of note, he also has the ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey.
We headed back once more into Ladismith and onward to Barrydale, stopping for lunch once more, arriving back in the Mother City mid-afternoon. The weather turned cooler over the next few days – we could have done with some of this. Ralph had probably managed to cycle roughly 150 km of the 180 km circuit, whereas I had sacrificed a bit of that with the help of some very generous folk.
Check out Ralph’s account and GPS tracks of the route here.