Proud stockists of Ural sidecars & spares
2015 Karoo Ride
Let me start this Trip Report and my account of events between 23 April and 30 April by emphasising, as always, that it is my personal account of the journey I rode and in no way reflect Management’s opinion and I still cannot believe how Donald Trump got to be the Republican candidate for the American Presidency! There I said it, it is out of the way so we can get on with it.
After counting a Brazilian sleeps we finally get to the point when we hitch up trailers with Ural sidecars and lunch boxes (or not!) and helmets and bike gear and boots and leave in the very early hours of the morning of Friday 21 April for one of my all-time favourite events of the year.
It is time for our annual Karoo Sidecar Trip. Saturday from about lunch time onwards we start congregating at the Brewery in Bethesda and the party grows as the riders and monkeys amass.
At 6 we meet at the Ramstal for a pre-dinner drink and then we all get together for Springbok Shanks at the Karoo Lamb. It does strike me how things have changed. When we rode the very first Karoo Trips we were a bunch of acquaintances with a shared passion. As time passed and we got to know each other, the group was now more friends than acquaintances. That is a powerful combination – sharing a passion with friends!
The morning of our departure and Katrin greets us with exactly the same friendly smile she always greets us with. Come rain or shine, no matter what time of day or year, Katrin of the Karoo Lamb remains a constant. We will be looking for her friendly face when we return to Nieu Bethesda in 7 days.
To get the first morning pull-off jitters out the way, Ryno and Monday elect to ride out Bethesda with the little pass past Marette se Bankie on the way to Riverdene, or Steilkrans as it used to be known. It also gives one a very pretty view back over the tiny village. Compassberg actually donned its little white hat (am I allowed to say white?), to wave us goodbye.
Initially it takes some time to establish a riding rhythm. Murraysburg comes and goes and we ride on to Beaufort West. Have a quick fuel stop at the Three Sisters and again in Beaufort and we break for our first lunch stop outside Beaufort on the way to Merweville, our sleep over for the evening.
Must also mention we had the first of our Beetroot Bombs served to us by Birgit. This would become a ritual for the duration of the trip – brought to us by Birgit in her apron on a little tray – very very sweet – Birgit that is, not the bombs!!
We ride on and on and on for a looong time. And just when it felt like we were never going to get to Merweville, we did!
The Springbok Lodge is our accommodation for the night and very soon the parking area is looking like a big mechanic’s yard with everyone changing and checking air filters etc etc etc. Not the guys on the EFIs though! Nooo they don’t have air filter issues.
It is also at Merweville that Fanie and Froukje join us and I am so happy to see them! They rode themselves right into my heart on our last Karoo jaunt.
Supper is a jolly affair with everyone eating together. Home cooked food with pumpkin pie that was just to die for. It was beautiful – more like pudding than food. Can you believe – only the second time in my life I am refused a recipe. Generally I have found cooks and hosts or hostesses very gracious, with most people more than happy to share a favourite recipe.
Monday morning and when everyone else is getting ready to go to work we are gearing up and getting ready for our day’s riding to Middelpos. It is a beautiful morning with no wind and lots of vast clear space and air. After the odd photo bomb, no beetroot yet, just photo bombing at the church, we leave Merweville and turn off on the Banksgate road at the sign that says Banksgate - haha it really was that easy although there was a gate involved!
What a wonderful road. It is just absolutely perfect, the landscape and the road conspire to make it magical and fantastical. Just loved this stretch – would rank it as one my highlights and definitely worth riding. We pass a farm called Ongeluksfontein where there is a fine example of a traditional corbelled house. We almost drive into a camp with ostrich but luckily a local man helped us right and after some turning back everyone is all smiles. Not sure the back-up vehicles smile when we retrace our tracks….?
After we had all had our daily BBB (Birgit’s Beetroot Bomb) we wade/ski/plough/cruise through quite a big water puddle and then we come to Karelskraal Pass.
Here I am going to quote verbatim from a site named Mountain Passes – one of my favourite time wasters on the internet. ’This is one of the most unusual and dramatic Northern Cape gravel passes offering challenging driving, multiple switch-backs, steep ascents and descents, serious drop offs, as well as grand views over deep ravines and a sweeping Karoo-scape’. I have to hand it to Mike it does sound like the perfect pass to practise flying the car round the steep switchback with the serious drop off! There is even a video of this.
The website goes on to say: ’The pass descends/ascends 238 vertical meters in just 3,1km producing a stiff average gradient of 1:13. There are one or two very steep sections at 1:5. Some of the slopes have reverse cross flow, which would make this road lethal in snow.’ Lucky us, it was perfect weather!
At this stage I had never heard of Karelskraal Pass so have no internal helmet dialogue going on. But as I approach in my blissed out little riding trance I cannot help but notice that the road is going up at a hectic angle and then disappears altogether!
Now all the kilometres of riding have taught me that riding a pass is like white water rafting. There is no point anticipating the trouble, it will find you all by itself and also, it always looks worse from afar. Once you’re committed you need to focus and do one meter at a time, not the whole pass or river all at once. And of course, main thing, stay on the boat, bus, bike whatever you are clinging to at the time.
And that is how I approach the Karelskraal Pass. The pass gets steep quickly and then climbs and climbs in such a way that one cannot really see where you are going – never sure if that is a good or a bad thing?
Anyway I stop when I get to a comfortable plateau as I no longer see lights behind me. As it turns out Sputnik had a problem at the foot of the pass. This gives our back up team something to do as Sputnik has to be put onto the trailer. This also worked out really well as the bunch of BMW riders descending the pass can be stopped and informed (by me of course!) that there are still a gazillion sidecars, no that’s a lie actually only 8 sidecars still following, 1 BMW GS and 2 vehicles with trailers, so it would be really good for everyone concerned if they could wait a little.
They were very obliging. Having seen the top of the pass, which we haven’t yet, they were really not keen on meeting upcoming traffic at all. As always it took about 3 minutes and 7 seconds flat for the BMW riders to make comments and ask questions about our incredible mountain goat like machines. Their faces did change as 1 Ural after the other came riding up the pass.
By the time they had watched all the Urals clear the top of the pass, their opinion of Ural sidecars had been altered forever! Just have to love that Ural magic.
We ride on to Sutherland where our only interaction with SALT is their gate that opens when one crosses the yellow line. Somehow almost all of us managed to do this inadvertently while waiting for our following vehicles. We ride into Sutherland to fill up and generally keep the show moving as we still have quite a distance to do.
It is round about this time that James and Lorraine in back up hit their first puncture for the trip. It would seem from previous trips that this specific Ford Ranger is a puncture magnet. This was not their last puncture.
The sidecars will ride on to the top of Ouberg Pass to enjoy a little lunch picnic at the top. We decide to wait for back up there but we need to get going as we do not want to do the last pass for the day, the Gannaga Pass, in the dark. Turned out to be a wise move as the Tankwa had experienced an unexpected 55mm of rain in half an hour’s space the Thursday before. The flat piece of road leading up to the pass would take 3 times as long to ride. The pass was also a little more challenging due to the water damage.
But wait, I am getting ahead of myself. We are still in Sutherland. It is the funniest thing trying to keep a group of sidecar riders together. It really is like herding cats. Everyone has their own idea of what they would like to be doing. Sitting still in full kit and waiting is not nearly as interesting as having a quick look in the local shop, going for a whirl through town, having a quick wee etc etc.
So finally we have everyone ready to ride when Team Eagle’s Marty asks if he can quickly put on his warm top – our Monday leader’s reaction was a bit like the monster in the Campbell’s Baked Beans & Astronaut ad. Just kidding, Monday’s rider did not fling the astronaut about, he just bit off Marty’s head and spat it out because the helmet hurt his teeth.
The whole Monster Baked Beans Astronaut scenario added much hilarity to the trip. We really did disgrace ourselves, or shall I just say I disgraced myself with the level of humour, but it still makes me laugh. I just cannot help it. If you google ‘Beans - not for Astronauts’, you too can enjoy the very sophisticated level of humour.
Back to things real and Ural - the distance from Sutherland to the top of Ouberg Pass is longer than I remember it and it gets progressively colder as we ride on. And I think of Marty who is now headless and cold! The beauty of the landscape and good condition of the road make up for the cold, almost.
If one has not stopped at the top of the Ouberg Pass, it is a jaw dropping surprise. Even having ridden this route previously I had forgotten how spectacular the view down into the Tankwa Karoo really is. In front of one you can see back millennia and look right into geological history. It really is like seeing back in time. It is just fantastic.
Again I quote from my Mountain Passes website – ‘The Ouberg Pass is a much revered gravel road pass by adventure travellers. It is an impressive pass with an altitude gain of 820m over 10,4km to produce a stiff average of 1:13 (it would seem we like going for the 1:13 pass gradients!) but the steepest parts are 1:5 – which is very steep (we know this now cos we rode the Karelskraal Pass up!) This pass was the first main route leading hunters, explorers and fortune seekers from the Cape of Good Hope to the interior and the great north. With the advent of tarred highways, the route was largely forgotten until 4x4 enthusiasts led the charge to explore its extensive unpaved sections and started calling it The Forgotten Highway.
There are 3 passes in South Africa called Ouberg Pass, or something similar enough that they become confused. One of them is close to Montagu in the Western Cape, the other is in the Eastern Cape on the R63 between Graaff Reinet and Murraysburg – called the Oude Berg Pass (remember campers we came out on the R63 just above the Oude Berg Pass on our very first morning’s riding out of Nieu Bethesda!) and the third is this one.’
As we ride down the Ouberg in first and second gear all the way into the Tankwa it was a good ride but already the evidence of the rain they had and the damage it did to the roads was visible.
Just as one is lulled into a false sense of flatness, there is a little wash out to wake you up much better. But this is good as it keeps one loose and warm as opposed to fixed in one position on the bike. I did feel it in my hands though, by the end of the day Marty was wondering how many clutch changes we had done between the Ouberg Pass and Middelpos Hotel. That’s what being cold does to you. You keep yourself busy with strange things.
We make a very quick stop at the Tankwa Karoo National Park offices for stickers and toilets and on we gallop. On the flatness in the later afternoon I am greeted by my shadow again. Early morning and late afternoon my shadow rides with me where I can see it. In the middle of the day, it deserts me and retreats to below where I never notice it.
As I said a little earlier the stretch between the office in the Tankwa National Park and the bottom of Gannaga Pass takes much longer to ride with some serious and interesting washed out bits. I really enjoyed riding this stretch and before too long we ride into the pass. It is a beautiful pass. Let’s see what Mountain Passes have to say about Gannaga – haha you thought you would get away without the whole nine yards but nooo – here it is:
‘The Gannaga Pass is a magnificent gravel road descending 548 meters through the Roggeveld Mountains from the high plateau near Middelpos. It possesses an almost ethereal quality from a combination of graceful curves, raw mountain beauty and scope of vision that is rarely repeated in other passes. We put this pass in our Top 10 for sheer enjoyment.’
Back to our own experience - the road surface is okay for the first bit, but towards the top there is a section which has been damaged a little but we all ride up and through it to the top. We are pushing quite hard so we don’t get caught by the dark.
Team sweep has a flat tyre just after the top of the pass so they ride in a little later than the advance party, but all in all the entire flock is in just before total darkness descends.
Monday Monster fixes Sputnik as the sun sets. What a boykie!
Middelpos turns out to be my very own disappointment for the trip. Last year supper was a splendid affair. This year supper consisted of a lamb ‘stoei’ and chicken pieces with rice. No vegetables, salad or any effort whatsoever.
This year we were really left feeling that we were an encumbrance and inconvenience.
Tuesday morning dawns crisp and cold and we don our gear and get going in the direction of the Biedouw Valley. Although Sputnik is battle ready Zeta got a pass fright as she drove up with back up in the car yesterday and had too much time to look around. Never a good thing. She chooses to have Sputnik taken down the pass on the trailer. Grant who started the Trip not feeling all that well, decides that he will also wait a little before his Sergei is made to do some work. So we descend with 2 back up vehicles, 9 sidecars and 1 GS rider.
I make a short stop at the top look out point and ride on down the pass. Arno, our GS rider had gone down ahead of us. As I ride down I can see him standing in one spot. It is only as I get closer that it becomes obvious that something is wrong. The bike is facing in the wrong direction, perpendicular to the mountainside and he is keeping the bike up, or the bike is keeping him up?? Not looking good.
As it turned out the bad section of the pass claimed a victim. Arno had taken his eyes off the road and looked back for a split second. That was enough for him to lose his focus and with it a lot of other stuff was lost. How sad – just the evening before he had said how much he had enjoyed the riding so far. Sorry Arrie!
As always, maybe I exaggerate, but it feels like always, a truck approaches from the opposite direction exactly when nobody needs it. At this stage it is just Arno and I and I don’t know who looked less impressed by the scenario – the truck driver or me!
Anyway after some maneuvering on all sides the truck can pass and drive up to the rest of the group to relay the message about Arrie’s incident. There would be no signal here where we needed it!
In the end Grant rides Sputnik down the pass as space had to be made for Arrie’s bike on the trailer. At the bottom of the pass on the flat road section, Zeta takes up her position on Sputnik again and Grant decides it’s time to ride Sergei. Arrie has been installed with Nerine in the ‘ambulance’ and the whole group rides on.
And thus is life - the pass we did not worry about i.e. Gannaga takes a bite and the part of the day we were concerned about turns out to be a non-event. The part I’m talking about is the route through Uitspankraal into the Biedouw Valley. Last year this section of road had been a challenge and this time it proved to be nothing at all. They had done quite a lot of work on the road and it had been improved. We also rode it downhill as opposed to up.
Riding through the Biedouw Valley it strikes me how this part of the world changes with seasons, time of day, time of year and whether one is travelling ‘in’ to the Valley or ‘out’. Just to make things interesting we meet an abnormal load truck carrying a big grader for that stretch of road we had just been on.
At the T-junction at the end of the road we all stop and wait for our party to catch up. Fanie had the first of a succession of Fanie flats and while waiting for them to catch up, Barry Lubbe from Mertenhof arrives to meet us and escort us to their place. What a difference in attitude from the previous evening at Middelpos.
Eventually everyone is allocated a room and by the time everyone is showered we end up on the steps of the house drinking some very good Kaapse Vonkel!! The witty and clever banter, made even more so by the Vonkel, is a fabulous end to a hard day’s riding and it is a happy bunch of sidecar riders and monkeys i.e. a veritable zoo, that sets off for supper at the main house.
At the main house we are welcomed by Barry and Mariette, his wife. They are 5th generation Lubbe’s farming at Mertenhof and I can only be amazed by their incredible hospitality.
The farmhouse dates back to 1830 and Mariette takes us through to show us the old kitchen and ‘brandsolder’ – closest translation would be fire attic. The old kitchens had open fires going much of the time. In order to make it safer, the old farmers had devised a plan. The roof above the kitchen had a reed ceiling, above the reeds was a layer of clay and above the clay the roofing. Initially the roofing was usually thatch. In the case of fire from above resulting from an ember from the chimney falling on the thatch, the clay layer would stop the fire from burning through to the reeds and in the event of fire from below in the kitchen, the clay layer would fall once the reed ceiling had burnt and smother the fire below. Very very interesting.
Mariette had prepared traditional local food specially for us. We had Springbok Pie prepared the old fashioned way and Quince Salad. There were a number of other dishes – what a feast!
They also teach us where ‘elders’ is (elders is an Afrikaans word meaning elsewhere) – Mertenhof is 30kms from the Boland, 30kms from the Karoo between the Hantam and the Cederberg Mountains i.e. really ‘elders’! For those of us who remember Haas Das se Nuuskas and the weather report, we can now say we have been to ‘elders’!
Breakfast is a friendly affair and we start our next day’s riding with full tummies and bright smiles. Today we are riding out towards Clanwilliam via the Pakhuis Pass. My little Narki’s gear changes feel strange and hectic and there is a strange vibration but I am not sure if it is just me riding badly, uneven gravel roads or not. At the ‘Engelsman se Graf’ we stop to look at the grave and pay our respects. This grave and the huge bluegum tree have become landmarks in the area.
The grave is that of Lieutenant Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes, who died nearby during The South African war on 30 Jan 1901. There are a number of versions about how he met his end and who put the stone up, but most likely is that his sister Eileen was responsible for putting up a headstone for him and then visiting this spot annually for the next 30 years. It would have been a long journey to make. Doing it annually and doing it 30 times speak of great love and devotion.
The next grave to visit for the day was that of C Louis Leipoldt, a much revered Afrikaans Poet, Dramatist, Doctor and Food Writer of note. A true Renaissance man years ahead of his time. His grandfather was also one of the missionaries that founded Wupperthal.
It is here that I realise that I had left my phone at Mertenhof. After a spectacular little wobbly which some may say was quite in character, the back-up team graciously offers to go back for me. A thousand thank you’s to James and Lorraine!
We ride the Pakhuis Pass on to Clanwilliam where we fuel up and ride on to Citrusdal and Op die Berg.
The Pakhuis Pass is another of Thomas Bain’s roads. From Piekenierskloof Pass he continued building the road along the Olifants’ River all the way to Clanwilliam. At the time the farmers from Calvinia were petitioning for the road through the Pakhuis Mountains to be improved. And so Thomas spent another three years in this part of the world constructing the Pakhuis Pass. It was opened in 1877 and remained unaltered till the 1960s.
We ride out past the Clanwilliam Dam and it is a beautiful road snaking along the Olifants River for a long while. This is the road I just told you about, between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam, that was built by my man, Thomas Bain. Really enjoyed this road and we had time to meander along in a very civilised fashion.
Citrusdal and we turn towards Op die Berg. Ride quite a hectic little pass outside Citrusdal – it is the Middelberg Pass. There was a moment on this pass where I uttered more than just ‘gosh golly’. A sharp relentless left turn on a very corrugated incline with an unprotected high drop left me wondering if Mike was going to fly the car again. And then we trundle on and on to Op die Berg where we stop and have lunch.
At the end of lunch I thought I would mention that Narki is not feeling herself. Well I hadn’t finished my sentence and Narki is put onto the trailer with ‘donut’ problems. I get asked if I hadn’t checked the donut and why had I not said anything sooner and and and. What??! I’m a girl what do I know – I thought donuts came from bakeries?!
And this is how I get to monkey from Op die Berg down the Gydo Pass into Ceres and beyond past mountains and streams and the Michells Pass and past Tulbagh and I have to be honest I was loving every second of it.
When we arrived in Riebeek Kasteel, hometown of Fanie and Froukje it was quite incredible. Between the two of them they had the whole bunch of us ‘installed’ in our various accommodations and within half an hour of arriving Fanie’s garage looked a bit like a war zone. I have to hand it to Fanie. It was when I walked into his garage that I got a glimpse of the soul of this rider. He seems to have a bit of a thing for bikes – all flavours and models.
Then our own Monday Monster and Trusty Sweep Jude and Headless Marty and Mark, the not so new new kid on the block, and Mikey the Brave went into action with the help of Final Drive Fanie bringing beers and handing out tools like Smarties.
Fanie’s Final Drive got repaired which made him smile real bright and before supper Narki’s donut issue was no longer critical. She would ride again, thank you all for making this happen. As I was clearly of no use in the garage I did what every girl in these circumstances do – I went for retail therapy in Froukje’s shop. And did I therapise!
Before dinner we had some serious G&T’s on the Hotel veranda – way too smart a place to call it a stoep. Very colonial.
Supper was a feast at Mama Cucina’s. Generally it sounded like everyone was having a ball and the food was spectacular.
Quite a few of us thought that our stay in Riebeek Kasteel was just excellent.
The next day we get to lie in a little as we were going to have breakfast at the Wimpy in Ceres! My kitsch little heart sang at the prospect of a Wimpy Burger.
But before I get to eat a Wimpy Burger, there are some schedule changes. We all congregate at the town square for our photo op for the morning. Mark – who wanted to prolong his trip a little longer, suggests we ride the Bain’s Kloof Pass to Ceres instead of back tracking yesterday’s route.
Initially the plan was to ride past the Tankwa Padstal, but the thought of the Afrika Burners on the road and contending with them had made us look at the alternatives.
And so, just like that we are handed one of the gifts and the gems of this trip. I have never ridden the Bain’s Kloof Pass and it is just splendid, magnificent, fantastic – you get my drift? Coming up from Wellington’s side, it felt so much like the Alpine passes we rode a few years ago with the kids. We had just missed some rain so the air was intensely clean and invigorating and we could see and enjoy the brilliant morning light.
My Trip Reports are a dead giveaway for the things I like and what inspires me as well as what terrifies me. By now it is probably quite obvious that I have an intense love hate relationship with passes. I loathe Normandien – I have now ridden it twice and have vowed never to ride it again. Then passes like the Swartberg Pass and Prince Alfred Pass are just all time favourites. What do they have in common – they were built by my boyfriend Thomas of course!
For a long time Andrew and Thomas Bain were interchangeable in my mind and I was never sure who built what pass. This trip changed that for me. Riding the Bain’s Kloof Pass, which was built by Andrew, the father, gave me some perspective. So let me share my perspective with you and finally the realisation that came from it.
This time I’m quoting from another source for our further elucidation. This from The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes by Graham Ross: ‘Bain’s Kloof Pass, which crosses the Limietberge to the east of Wellington on the road to Ceres and the north, was opened in 1853. It is a work of considerable engineering complexity, which is generally regarded as being the magnum opus of Andrew Geddes Bain, the famous road builder and geologist. ’He apparently had this to say at the opening of the pass: ’I would rather make another road than another speech…being but a common highwayman more accustomed to blasting and blazing.’
The pass is 30kms long in total and it took four and a half years to complete this pass. At any given time approx 300 convicts were being used to do the work – at times going to as many as 450 convicts. In all more than a 1 000 individual convicts were employed over the length of the project. There was no mention of animals used other than the fact that 2 tunnels were initially incorporated in the planning, but the soil and rock conditions proved to be unfavourable. It is mentioned that the animals used during the construction were scared of entering these tunnels. The idea of the tunnels was eventually abandoned.
The story of the building of the pass is a book by itself, nowadays I’m sure they would make a movie of it so I won’t go into more of that other than telling you a few interesting (to me that is) things.
Thing One – Michell’s Pass was improved and finished by Andrew Bain in order to get it out of the way so he could move on to the greener pastures of Bain’s Kloof.
Thing Two – at the time of construction Thomas was a young man and worked for his father on this project as well as during the completion of Michell’s Pass just before. This experience would prove to be invaluable in Thomas’ career in future.
Thing Three – and this is a sad little fact. Thomas Bain was busy working on the construction of Prince Alfred Pass and was not given leave to visit his ailing father. Andrew passed away on 20 October 1864 without seeing Thomas. This was a blow for both of them as they shared a strong bond.
Personally it’s time for a confession - I’ve had a thing for these Bain Boys for a while. And my realisation? I like to ride these old passes to honour the men who had the vision to ‘see’ them and for all the hardship that went into constructing these wonderful roads.
I thoroughly enjoyed riding Bain’s Kloof. I reckon riding this pass could be prescribed as medication – it literally lifts one – body and soul!!
The day before I had monkeyed down Michell’s Pass so it was a lekker bonus to ride it myself.
Luckily we were all fortified a little by our various Wimpy breakfasts. If not, it would have been even harder to say goodbye to our new riding buddy Mark. He made himself part of the group so easily and effortlessly and we would miss watching out for him.
And just like that we ride out of the Boland and the high mountains and vineyards into the vastness of the Karoo again. The constant change in scenery and landscape is mesmerising.
Today, for once in what seems like forever, we were actually ambling along as we have ample time to get to Matjiesfontein and the Lord Milner Hotel. So we took some group pics with us and a solitary ‘windpomp’ in the background. We rode ‘round’ for James’ pleasure, we had some time listening to and watching Lorraine listen to some music.
And finally we meander ourselves all the way to Matjiesfontein. Some of us have lunch, some of us have cake, some visit the museum and some of us go and walk the Snake Eagle Thinking path or geoglyph. Some even managed to flood their accommodation!
All in all we enjoy ourselves tremendously and before we know it, it is time for the 6 0’clock bus ride – showtime!!! This bus ride through Matjiesfontein takes 7 mins whether it is done fast or slow. Dinner time is a treat for me as I have Smoked Snoek Souffle and really enjoy it tremendously. Matjiesfontein remains a surreal experience. For a hotel that is supposedly one of the most haunted in the country, I slept like a little log. We did find our room door wide open in the morning after we had closed it quite firmly the night before ….. heehee…..
Up to this point we have had spectacular weather. Splendid days with just enough breeze to keep the dust out of our eyes. The previous afternoon the wind picked up and during the night it became clear that the weather was changing. We woke up to a misty morning, quite other worldly, very apt for our surroundings.
I choose my favourite breakfast – scramble and smoked salmon. Bliss. When we came out to get ready to leave, it was time for the rain suit wiggle. Absolutely fascinating to see all the different versions of this particular dance.
By now we have spent enough time in our helmets watching the landscape shift – physically and mentally - for some moments of clarity to present themselves. It is on the little stretch between Matjiesfontein and Laingsburg that the first of these come and settle in my head.
It was as a result of riding behind Ryno and James and Lorraine the previous afternoon and watching them laugh that it dawned on me, we choose joy. One does not become too old to have fun, it is always a matter of choice.
We fill up in Laingsburg and now it is becoming clear that the weather is here to stay. We ride the stretch of road past the Rooinek Pass and the landscape is exquisite. It is while moving through this coming together of landscape and cloudscape and rays of golden and silver sunlight and back lit horizons that I realise – I love these riding days for the visual drama. Stormy and rainy and overcast days make for magic views.
On the way to Seweweekspoort it starts raining for real. We are a bunch of wet riding bunnies when we stop at the entrance to Seweweekspoort when Fanie announces flat tyre no 2 for the trip.
Many hands make light work and while the rest of us sprout nonsense in the rain, the tyre is being sorted. This is quite a jaw dropping ride but due to the weather it is not quite so dramatic. By the end of the 17 km long Seweweekspoort we had crossed the Huisrivier 23 times! And when you exit on the Amalienstein side, you have left the Great Karoo behind and you are in the Klein Karoo.
We ride on through the Huisrivier Pass. This is a modern feat of engineering – opened 1966. And down and over the Huis Rivier we ride on through the rain to Calitzdorp for a much needed cup of hot chocolate.
And can you believe, right there in Calitzdorp main street, our back up team get back to their Ford Ranger to find yet another flat tyre!
Sometimes I am all too aware of the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’. For a few days now I have been wondering what this part of the world looks like when it rains. Well here it was – I got to ride it, up close and personal. Being a proper Pluviophile it made my spirit soar.
Driving out on the Groenfontein road we head in the direction of the Swartberg Pass and Prince Albert beyond. And it is raining cats and dogs and even some big dairy cows and some goats too. Riding our 3 wheeled Ural mud monster makes for enormous fun. And yes we still had lunch al fresco picnic style on the Kruisrivier section of this road. What’s a soggy biscuit or chip between sidecar friends. Can you believe Fanie had had another flat tyre – actually his sidecar did! After lunch we follow Monday and turn up towards the mighty Swartberg Pass. Sometimes you have to know when you got lucky. Who would have known the swirling mist and horizontally blown rain would turn out to be a massive blessing for some of us. What you can’t see can’t hurt you – haha.
So right back to the task at hand. I am focussing on the road conditions, the turns in the mist all the time anticipating traffic from above. And we wind along turn after turn into rain and wind and as I wonder how far we are from the top, we pass the old stables and I cannot believe my eyes. We haven’t even started climbing the real pass on this side! Amazing what happens when we have no visual reference.
Only twice before have I ridden in rain blown horizontally into my face to such an extent that I almost choke. Well between almost choking and keeping my head at such an angle that I can open my eyes just enough to see and trying to feel my burning fingers and worrying about the traffic from the top we reach the top.
I am euphoric, elated about reaching the top. We get off briefly to congratulate ourselves and each other and it is at this point that I laugh in my helmet as my little sister Zeta and one or two other riders do not have the faintest idea where they have just ridden.
The down side is a positive breeze as we are shielded from the wind and it is a hugely pleasant scenic and panoramic drive down and out of the pass.
The Swartberg Pass would be the last pass Thomas Bain built in the Cape. The road Thomas Bain constructed is basically unaltered to this day and the surface is still gravel. On 10th February 1988 the pass celebrated its 100th anniversary and was declared a National Monument later that year. It was fitting that this would be our last pass ridden for this trip.
It is a freezing cold ever so damp band of riders that ride into Prince Albert. What a day!!
That night I go to sleep and wake up the next morning wondering if I had ever turned in the night. I think they call it the sleep of the dead, or the innocent or the weary? Maybe just the sleep of the stormy pass riders?
And just like that the last morning dawns. It is dry but the air bites – fantastic!! I always become intensely aware of it being the last morning I am putting on my gear, the last morning we are all eating breakfast together, the last morning we load luggage and warm bikes up and so on.
We have all managed to get boots, gloves, jackets and riding pants dry from previous day’s soaking. Some still complain of wet helmets but mostly everyone is toasty.
We say goodbye to Fanie and Froukje who are heading to Merweville where their vehicle is parked. It was such a treat to have them ride with us again.
So if you are still breathing and even half awake and have gotten this far – please read and ride the last day with us.
We exit Prince Albert on the road to nowhere with the glittering Karoo stretching ahead of us. It soon becomes really obvious that it is actually getting colder. I have pinky issues and could only get my winter glove on one hand, the other hand is covered in my standard glove. Every opportunity I get I warm my freezing little fingers on the engine.
The next thing my knight in shining armour decides to let me ride Monday with heated handle grips. Oh my word! What a difference this makes. When we ride into Rietbron I have 10 warm fingers, what a bonus. Now that’s called Looove.
Rietbron could be a movie set. This time the place is positively buzzing! We spot about 7 people, and this on a Saturday morning. I would soon find out where everyone else is.
We polish the last of our snacky picnic food, the crumbs and leftovers. Basically it is not about the eating, is all about standing around talking nonsense and warming up a little.
I look at the Rooiwal Padstal and its fireplace as we drive by with long eyes. At Rietbron I had decided not to fill up my petrol tank from my jerry can, but rather to see if I could make it all the way to Aberdeen. I get to 200kms on this tank when I have to go over on reserve and at 226kms I stutter to a standstill.
In life I have learnt that it is clever to surround yourself with people stronger and more intelligent than yourself. In my case this is pretty easy. Most people are stronger than me heehee.
Quick quick and Grant had my unopenable jerry can open and we were flying in the direction of Aberdeen again.
And that is where I spotted all the people that weren’t in Rietbron. They had all gone to Aberdeen to shop and mingle with all the other Karoo people we found that morning when we rode into Aberdeen. I could not believe how many people were out and about.
Aberdeen has not ever really grabbed me, but apparently there are some stunning people living there and I have been told Aberdeen is situated above a vast underground lake. Just as well this is not Stilfontein with its eternal sinkholes. One would have to go to bed with water wings in Aberdeen – clearly the story is getting too long now.
It’s a short hop skip and a jump to Graaff Reinet and the last 50kms to Nieu Bethesda fly faster than any other 50kms on the whole trip.
We descend into Bethesda via De Toren and as true as nuts – Katrin’s friendly face is the first one to welcome us back when we park outside the Karoo Lamb.
We are elated as we had no further misfortune after Arrie’s incident. All the sidecars that rode out rode back technically, as Fanie and Froukje were in Merweville dealing with the last of a total of 4 punctures and Mark was busy moving house but had also arrived home safe.
On Saturday night we were a noisy, raucous bunch of sidecar adventurers. Birgit even jumped onto her chair to tell us how much she enjoyed her trip. I have only ever seen people do this after 1 tequila too many, but I think it was just sheer joy. It was a fantastic trip with the Karoo coming to the party as always. Just as you think you know a route or a stretch of road, the Karoo does its magic and it looks completely different from before. There are no words to express my love and devotion to this thing called the Karoo…. I cannot wait to ride into the vastness again.
Written by: Alpha Greeff