Bikepacking South Africa & Jeffrey’s Bay
3 Mar – 24 April 2016 (Cape Town, Karoo, and Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa) —
While V was in Kyrgyzstan, I rehabbed my knee in Cape Town. Once V arrived, a quick shake out ride on some of the trails around Table Mountain confirmed that both the bikes and the knee were in order, so we headed out to the Karoo.
We took the backpacker bus (Baz Bus) out of the Cape Town CBD to Swellendam in order to avoid Cape Town traffic. An easy day on pavement brought us to our first of many passes — Troudow Pass — that was designed by Thomas Bain (1830-1893), a brilliant South African road engineer. His passes have stood the test of time with little erosion, and the pitch is perfect for a bike.
The area through the pass was gorgeous, and the scenery rivaled New Zealand with the added bonus of zebras, daisies, and baboons (a questionable bonus). A stop at a waterfall to cool off was followed by a great descent to Barrydale, our first overnight stop.
V stumbled upon a restaurant right on Route 62 called Diesel & Creme, which served milkshakes from the caravan in the garden — which were amazing — and we started looking forward to enjoying some similar milkshakes throughout the rest of our ride. Unfortunately, it turned out that those milkshakes were the best in the Karoo, and although the rest of the milkshakes weren’t bad, none compared to the awesomeness our our first milkshake in South Africa.
Our second section was 90km with no towns along the way. We had planned to ask to camp at a farm when we got tired, but we hadn’t planned on every farm being empty because it was Easter Sunday. We ended up riding the full 90km, including the last two hours directly into a brutal headwind, before arriving in the town of Van Wyksdorp — which was also empty. Because it was Easter Sunday.
We also found out that the only hotel/restaurant — and our intended lodging for the evening — had gone out of business a few months before. So we found a spot at the post office out of the wind, and scrolled through Tracks4Africa looking for potential lodging. We found Watermill Farm only a few km out of town, which was perfect. The property ran off solar power so we dined by candlelight. And enjoyed fresh quince from the farmer’s garden, which V stewed and we had for dessert and then breakfast the next day.
We were now firmly into the Karoo, and the gravel and 4×4 roads of the Karoo are made for bikepacking: empty, well-maintained, and traversing gorgeous countryside. The highlight of our first couple of days was our next pass, Rooiberg Pass.
Long, gravel, and isolated, it was a great way to spend a few hours. The couple of 4×4’s that we passed were impressed that we were doing this — “you guys must be super fit” — and also gave us the first of many warnings about safety — “Be careful. South Africa is dangerous.” which was always followed by a pause and then “but not here. This is the safest place in South Africa.” (and often followed by a “did you try the milkshakes in Barrydale? They’re the best in South Africa.”)
After a rest at the top of Rooiberg Pass, we enjoyed a beautiful descent to the town of Calitzdorp, another postcard perfect place in the Karoo.
We had one of our best meals ever at the Portuguese restaurant in town (the chef had trained in Macau), and enjoyed great hospitality everywhere we went.
After resupplying, we headed into the most scenic portion of the trip. Up Seweweekspoort pass and then over Boschluyskloof pass to the Gamkaskloof, a historically secluded valley that did not have road access until the late 1960s.
The gravel roads had turned into exciting double and single track, ending in a descent down a spicy track only suitable for klipspringers or goats.
Die Leer (the ladder) is still the only way to access the Gamkaskloof (also known as Die Hel, or the hell) from the west. Loose rocks, sharp corners, and prickly plants for 2 km basically straight down a steep hillside. It was more about fighting gravity than carrying the bike.
Finally, we collapsed at our farm stay for the night (where we had booked in advance at Boplaas farm in order to receive permission to descend Die Leer, which is half on private property now, into Die Hel). Our host was so impressed, that she filled up the plunge pool so we could soak our weary legs and provided a bottle of chilled champagne to cap one of the best days of riding of our life.
The next morning brought the hardest day of riding that we did the whole trip, made all the much harder as my day started (and continued) with a bout of food poisoning — likely from some raw tomatoes the night before. Over 2000 meters of climbing, with several thigh deep river crossings, in 30-plus degree heat without a lick of shade for the afternoon. It was a sufferfest.
The ride was endless, the scenery gorgeous, and the hills kept coming.
When we were seriously debating calling it a day and wild camping across from baboons, we finally saw the end of the climbing. And then the final kilometers down the switchbacks of Swartberg Pass were super fun. It almost made up for the ride to get there. Almost.
The descent down Swartberg Pass brought us to Prince Albert, which became our favorite town in the Karoo. David recovered while we enjoyed fresh food and even more great hospitality (and a massage!).
The last section took us from Prince Albert to Jeffrey’s Bay through the small towns of Klaarstroom and Willowmore, and then through 200 km of terrain teeming with wildlife. A herd of springbok ran alongside us for several minutes, and I almost got taken out by a bushbuck that came tearing out of the, well, bush.
We rode through the Baviaanskloof, with a required vehicle escort trailing us for 60km in the heart of the nature reserve due to aggressive cape buffalo and black rhino (of which we saw none).
Unfortunately, there are few good pictures of the last days of riding as David’s second least favorite animal stole my old waterproof/shockproof Sony camera after I dropped it on the trail. Given that Baviaanskloof means Baboon Valley, we knew what we were getting into.
We had a perfect last night of camping at Bruintjieskraal on a river with a gorgeous sunset. A really nice family heard about our bike tour and came over to offer us their leftovers as they were leaving the next day and they figured (correctly) that we had no fresh food to eat. They gave us half a bottle of red wine, borewors (sausage), bread, and vegetables. Best camping dinner ever. Their generosity completely made our night.
We rode the 70 km to JBay on our final day, through citrus farms to the ocean.
We ended the ride at the Supertubes surf break, where we were staying.
Our short stop in Jeffrey’s Bay became almost two weeks, as we got sucked into its great waves and even better people.
We also spent a couple of Mondays helping at our friend’s really amazing non-profit — the JBay Recycling Project — which encourages recycling in the community by giving kids incentive to bring recyclables to a neighborhood location every Monday. The first day that we volunteered, it was 36*C (that’s 97*F for our U.S. readers) and over 300 kids came to exchange over 3 tons of recyclables for points, which they “spent” on food, clothing, shoes, toiletries, and even bicycles if they save up their points. It’s a really impressive community project that gets plastic and glass off the streets and, hopefully, teaches the kids about working and saving.
All too soon, our time in J-Bay came to an end and it was time to head to Zimbabwe.