Karoobaix - The Western CapeTravel & Adventure Cycling
The Klein or Little Karoo is a long, semi-arid valley in the Western Cape sandwiched between two impressive mountain ranges, the Swartberg and Langeberg. Geographically, it is 290km long and 40–60 km wide, impenetrable for the early settlers who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Cycling the many passes, you marvel at the unfathomable toil it must have taken to create trade routes through these enormous and steep natural barriers. (Interestingly it was the delivery of ostrich feathers which motivated the building of the passes.)
I had been lucky enough to be asked to come all this way to attend Eroica South Africa, but tacked on a 5-day bikepacking trip, because why not? South Africa is far from home and I want to see as much as I can before I die.
Luckily today, to penetrate the Karoo, one must only hire a van. I had hooked up with Tour of Ara organiser Stan Engelbrecht months before to plan the trip. Stan is a well known figure in the close Capetonian world of cycling culture, and was brought in to organise the Eroica. I first met Stan in Cape Town and got a brief glimpse into the world of Cape Town cycle culture, but more on that some other time. Along with two others and a german cycling journalist friend of mine, we set out on a 400km journey to map the course of “Karoobaix”, a multi-stage gravel race Stan is planning for 2017. The routes we would be taking were partly unexplored by bike, at least to our knowledge, so in some ways for all it was a voyage into the unknown.
First my caveat. Despite having a few achievements in my gravel palmares, I currently do not own a gravel machine suitable for photography. I realised this a few weeks before and contacted Stelbel, a legendary Italian frame builder whom I adore on the off chance that they could lend me a bike. After all we were to be shooting photos along the way for The Radavist, and one doesn't show up with something off the rack. To my surprise they resprayed a prototype of their Nina which arrived the week before in time for a maiden voyage at the Dirty Reiver in Northumberland. I also took the opportunity to call up the nice people at Apidura, perhaps the world's busiest bikepacking bag makers, who sent a care package Like Bilbo Baggins, it is not very adventuresome where I live, and I had put off owning any suitable bags. And as if Fate herself demanded, I was ready to take on a great gravelly African adventure.
After the trip, it turned out that I had actually packed adequately (save tent and cooking equipment which were kindly handled by the rest of the team) so I can here now share a few things about bikepacking for the beginner:
1. Bring only one of anything. If you need fresh clothes every day, bikepacking may not be for you. One kit for riding and one set of warm clothes for the evening. My riding kit included the merino PEdALED Kaido jersey, which when hung to dry each night over a bristling thorn bush, would awake refreshed and ready to impede unbearable odours throughout each day of our five day journey. Experiment with various textiles until you find a kit that suits you. Also, don't leave home without some bum cream.
2. Whichever tyre system you are running, make sure you are expertly capable at repairing a puncture or other tyre failure. I was warned to run tubeless, which was not possible for me, so I upgraded to Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 42c which I had seen some of the more experienced riders running at the Dirty Kanza 200 last year. They did not disappoint. As a group, the only puncture we experienced on this trip befell a tubeless rider courtesy of a slit sidewall. Such repairs can be tricky trailside, especially with no cover in the desert sun. It may be considered “oldschool”, but for gravel use and even considering long and rocky descents at top speed, running tubes at high-ish pressure (to avoid pinch flats) is what I will stick with for now.
3. If you can get food each day, you can carry less. Ride with your extra water bladder as empty as possible, but still full enough for trailside eventualities. Keep enough food on you to last at least one day in an emergency. I carried dried mango, Biltong and Droëwors (african dried antelope, beef, and ostrich), cashews, other nuts and some fresh fruit, with gels and powerbars just in case. Bring a musette or cloth sports bag to carry food once you are near your camp for the night. (Camp near a town when possible)
4. Bring tools and extra bits. Tubes, patches, extra cleat screws, zip ties, a Leatherman, chain tool, gaffer tape, lube, and whatever else you think you might need that is small to carry. Things WILL break. Eventualities can turn dangerous in a vast wilderness like Africa.
5. Bring a small soap, toothpaste, usb charger(s) and travel towel for obvious reasons.
We took off in the afternoon from Montagu and ascended to the top of the Ouberg Pass. The pro adventurers among us selected a nice spot in the thorny scrub for our first night’s camp. Not far from the road but secluded enough. Luckily for us, a motorist would pass perhaps every two hours at most, but you can’t be too safe: humans are the most dangerous animals you can come across in the “veld”. I collected fuel for a fire, amazed at the number of thorns, and kept an eye out for snakes and scorpions. (I never saw any, though my companions had intimate knowledge of the beasts.)
Stan warmed tortillas over the fire and we ate wraps of sweet potato, avocado, sun-dried tomato, cheese and coriander while Werner and I quizzed the others about various dangers to watch out for in the wild, hanging on wide-eyed to each word. We ate porridge with nuts and dried fruit for breakfast before breaking camp and settling into a peaceful rhythm that would last all of four days. Our travels blended together in a film-like montage of stunning landscapes, extremely fun and rideable terrain, tough climbs, interesting people, wild animals and unfamiliar scenes. And we ate very, very well throughout thanks to common sense planning and culinary how-to of Stan, Sven and Cameron, our South African bike touring experts.
After a long fouth day featuring dead kudu and a brutal desert crossing charmingly named "Hell", we finally reached the oasis of Prins Albert. Stopping off at a tony cafe whose holidaying patrons unknowingly mocked the overwhelming feeling of relief I had at once again reaching civilisation, I quickly emptied two half litres of beer that I swore tasted better than any I'd had before in my life.
Praying in delirium that Stan would relent his plans to camp atop the Swarterg Pass and check us into a hotel room, within minutes we were off again, concerned to reach the top before nightfall. Described as a “small climb", I have learned that South Africans downplay danger by habit and prepared for the worst. In Europe cycling is a hobby. In South Africa, cycling is survival. It was 4:30. The pass was a mere 20km outside of town.
At the northern end of the pass, seven-hundred-metre-high quartzite cliffs of the upper Table Mountain Group start to be seen, and these are often tilted through 90 degrees (sometimes even more, as they are often “folded”). Arguably the most famous of all these cliff faces is the spectacular 'Wall of Fire’, but I can't say which wall of fire was meant.
The first serpentines are ugly. I mean, they are aesthetically gorgeous, but to ride they are rocky, steep and evil. I had two beers and a lot of kilometers in me, and when I saw (from the bottom) what looked to be the top, I cursed loudly. As it turns out, the "top" was only about the first third of the climb, which turned out to be 1400 meters, or about 4,500 feet in total. I dug in and went for it. Gradually the climb evens out a bit and I start to look down and back at the scenery around me. A climb not unlike Sa Calobra, or Stelvio, on gravel, with towering red mountains all around, silent and magnificent.
I arrived to a cold wind just as the sun was setting, stripped off my clothes in delirium, dried myself with a towel and put on warm clothes. Soon the others reached me (one as I stood naked above a 700-meter cliff, sorry Cam) and we made our way to the planned camp for the night. As we arrived it was clear that the camp had been destroyed recently by fire and we had no recourse but to head back down in the dark to look for a place to sleep.
The Karoo offers gravel grinders ever-changing road conditions, from dusty gravel to rocky doubletrack, packed dirt roads, parched earth, and sometimes a bit of sand or an african massage*. Rock formations typical of the Cape Folded Mountains reveal themselves suddenly when entering the many passes, and combined with the odd sightings of wild animals and strange, unfamiliar vegetation and friendly people, on the whole the Little Karoo is a very unique place, a Shangri-la of riches for the adventurous cyclist.
Look for a three-day stage race to be held in 2017 on the very same route we took, to coincide with the next edition of Eroica South Africa.
Thanks to Stan, Nic, Nils, Mishaq, Cam and Sven for the unbelievable hospitality and companionship. Thanks also to Eroica, Brooks, Stelbel, Apidura, and John at the Radavist for making the trip possible.
* "washboards" in American slang