A TOUCH OF THE KAROO
Cast the window wider, sonny;
Let me see the veld
Rolling grandly to the sunset
Where the mountains melt;
With the sharp horizon round it.
Like a silver belt
Years and years I’ve trekked across it;
Ridden back and fore
Till the silence and the grandeur
Ruled me to the core;
No one ever knew it better;
None could love it more.
There’s a balm for crippled spirits;
In the open view.
Running from your very footsteps
Out into the blue.
Like a wagon track to heaven.
Straight ‘twixt God and you.
There’s a spot I know of sonny,
Yonder by the stream;
Bushes handy for the fire,
Water for the team.
By the old outspan sonny,
Let me lie and dream.
At 4.40 am on the 17th of December I rolled out on to the N1 highway on my heavily laden metal beast of burden, my orange and black Kawasaki KLR 650, affectionately nicknamed “the Killer bee”. KLR, killer, get it? I was expecting a really hot ride so wanted to exploit the cool of the morning to allow me to smash some serious k’s before the day got really warm. My destination for day one was the lovely little Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda, 30 odd k’s before Graaff-Reinet. It is always difficult to wear the right kit for early morning starts, when the wind chill factor can make one quite nippy. Too warm a jacket becomes a heavy liability later in the day, so I dress in layers, with a wind proof shell over my airflow jacket. The sky was heavily brushed with clouds which leaked the odd drop on me as I skirted a still silent Jo’burg and on to the Grasmere toll plaza which was experiencing a traffic jam. Rows of holiday makers queued ten deep at the booths. As you know, bikes rock! So I rumbled past to the head of the queue. “what’s going on?” I asked the chap. “Eish, we offline!”, came the reply. In the interest of good fuel economy and decent tank range coupled with mechanical sympathy, I was cruising at 115 kph on the KLR’s speedo. [Interestingly enough, this would equate to around 123 kph on my KTM 1090, Africa Twin or Yamaha Super Ten which all over read by an almost unacceptable margin.] The “ancient” cable driven speedo on the KLR, when checked against my GPS, is almost spot on. This got me thinking about the Tortoise vs Hare effect that I started noticing. The KLR was able to stay glued to it’s speed. When trucks impede your progress, you simply pass the row of cars stuck behind it and overtake without having to cross the centre line. Cars which flew past you earlier at 130 are now restricted, sometimes for kilometres, to 80 kph. It is amazing how many k’s pass before they fly past you again only to be hindered once again by the next truck, of which there are many on our roads these days.
I had a fuel “splash and dash” in Ventersburg, then rolled on to Bloem, with the KLR throbbing along sweetly at a relaxed 4,500 rpm. The One Stop was so overrun with holiday lemmings bound for the coast that I ditched breakfast plans, settling for a take away coffee and a lunchbar, then got back on the bike. Bloem was actually really cold and heavily overcast and the skies to the south appeared black and heavily pregnant with rain. As it sometimes happens the road seemed to follow a lighter path through the dark skies and I only hit 5 odd k’s of proper rain before I scudded out from under the bank of clouds and reached a dry and hot Colesburg. It was only midday and I had only 150 odd k’s to go.
As one enters the Karoo proper, and as I would experience over the next few days, there are huge swathes of our magnificent country that are still in the grip of a devastating drought. Riding through the Great Karoo under a cobalt sky and through a wall of relentless heat, I found myself wondering at the tenacity of the people and animals that inhabit this arid land. The turn off to Nieu Bethesda took me off the national road and after a short while I trundled into the town, heading straight for the Two Goats Deli and Brewery that I had discovered on a previous adventure. I wolfed down a sandwich to quell my hunger and slaked my now considerable thirst with two tankards of “Honey Ale”. If you have not yet visited this little gem of a town, put it on your bucket list. No streetlights, banks or ATM’s, and with tree lined dirt roads emanating from the typical steeple’d church at it’s centre, it oozes old world charm. It was also home to the famous “owl lady”, Helen Martin. In fact, it is probably thanks to the outsider art works of sculpture created by this somewhat tortured soul, that Nieu Bethesda rose to prominence as a tourist destination. The town also has some of the finest dinosaur fossil beds to be found in the Karoo. I always stay at a lovely little B ‘n B called Starry Nights. A real “home from home” spot. Give Bronwen a buzz  if you are looking to stay over, you will not be disappointed.
There is a lovely little pub and pizza spot in the middle of the village, opposite Helen Martin’s Owlhouse. This was my supper venue, so after a shower I strolled through the early evening glow for a sundowner. Earlier in the day, just before the turnoff to the village, I was passed by a couple on a BMW 1200 LC GS. So it was, in typical kindred spirit fashion that I spent a delightful night in the company of Rudie and Rene’ Kruger, a couple from Centurion, also on an extended road trip that would take them to the West Coast and back. Rene’, in the interest of sensibility had left her own Bee Em at home and was riding pillion with her man. You are never lonely on a motorcycle road trip. Watered and fed, we strolled back to our accommodation in the cool of a star speckled Karoo evening, tired but content.
True to form I was up early and on the road out of the valley and over the Sneeuwberg to Graaff-Reinet by 6am. Taking advantage of the decent range from the 22 litre tank on the Killer Bee, I fuelled in Willowmore, a full 440 k’s from Colesburg. The solitude and vast vistas of the Karoo accompanied by the reassuring throb of the big single feed your soul. Oh yes, I must tell you about Roelof. About 30 klicks south of Aberdeen, I stopped where a farm road spills out onto the main road to secure my rainsuit bag which was trying to go AWOL. A farm bakkie emerged, and the driver, who was accompanied by his young son, asked if I was OK. So this is how I met Roelof. Turns out he is a hectic adventure biker who rode his KTM 990 with mates through the Darien Gap in South America. After running a fruit export operation in Pretoria, he is now farming the family farm near Aberdeen in the Karoo. A mere 4k’s from the main road he has self catering farm stay cottages on his farm, and plans to host adventure rides from this venue in the future. Watch this space for details! In fact the town of Aberdeen has plenty to offer, so before just haring through, stop and linger a while.
Around 40 k’s after Willowmore I took a right to De Rust. This road undulates and curves through some amazing scenery before it makes a T-Junction in De Rust. Turn right and the road leads you through Meiringspoort, with the most spectacular scenery you can imagine!. The road follows the course of the river which over the ages has cut it’s way through the mountain to create this spectacle. Once you exit the Poort it is a short hop to the Prince Albert turnoff, where I was to meet my mates from Montagu. If you have not yet visited Prince Albert, do it! Again, a tidy little Karoo town with lots of history and, nestled at the foot of the Swartberg pass, perfect as a base for Karoo travellers.
I pulled in to the Lazy Lizard, a funky little eatery that makes a damn fine coffee, on the main street of Prince Albert, to wait the arrival of my bud Cobus, on his 700 TransAlp, together with his sons Eckardt and Krisjan, riding another KLR and a TVS 180 Apache respectively. The tiny TVS, commandeered for the trip from his wife Tersea, is no stranger to the open road, having been ridden down to Montagu from Pretoria a few months back. We had slight reservations about it’s ability to negotiate the somewhat extreme road that we intended riding down Gamkaskloof to Die Hel. I was on my third coffee when the troops arrived. The typical banter of an easy friendship ensued as we planned our assault on Die Hel. We sought out the local camp site, pitched our tents then went shopping for provisions for the next two nights of camping. “Ons gaan nou braai”, was the popular call, so Karoo chops and wors were on the menu, with a stew planned for the next night at our Die Hel campsite. Captain Morgan, the travellers mate, got things off to a great start as the fire burned down to braai ready coals. The sky was clear and the weather warm with the earlier gusty wind having died down. Tents pitched amid the organized chaos of unpacked bikes formed a wonderful backdrop to another memorable “kuier”. The evening drew to a close as we sat chatting and sipping on the now customary, Captain laced, “Renoster” coffee. With the heady anticipation of an epic ride in the offing on the ‘morrow, we snuggled into our sleeping bags for some welcome slumber.
As is typically the case when camping I rise early, so at first light I showered and started striking camp. One by one the troops too followed suit. We arrived at the town butchery for our meat for our planned stew, topped our fuel tanks then headed out of town. The bottom of Swartberg pass is reminiscent of Meiringspoort before they tarred the road. The road starts to rise onto the pass proper, opening up magnificent vistas. Not even 20 k’s up the pass the turnoff to Die Hel goes off to the right. Two signs at the turnoff help build the excitement. The first reads “Dangerous road for 48 km! Use at own risk”. The sign is covered in stickers put there by fellows who have ridden the road, such as “GPS for Africa” and “GlobeBusters MOTORCYCLE EXPEDITIONS”. Numerous 4×4 clubs have added their logos too. The next sign reads “Gamkaskloof 37 Travelling time two hours”. Slightly confused by the discrepancy in distance between the two signs, which are a 100 metres apart, we rode off. A bunch of guys on adventure bikes were parked under a tree in the shade, waiting for their backup vehicle, having just ascended the pass. We stopped for a chat. Their was a KLR, a couple of airhead GS’s and an 800 GS. After exchanging typical questions about where we were from and where we planned on going, one of the guys said “Oh, you that guy from ZA Bikers, I just read your blog about the Doohickey, now you are on the trip you spoke about!”. Youbetcha!, I’m that guy!. We shared a few war stories, as is the custom amongst adventure bike riders then got on our way. The guys gave a parting glance at the little TVS that had us wondering if we had perhaps brought, in the case of the 180 Apache, a knife to a gunfight.
Die Hel was so named by an early visitor to Gamkaskloof who exclaimed “die plek is so warm soos die hel!”. [this place is as hot as hell] The name stuck. We planned to complete the ride before the heat of the day really manifested. With the occasional cloud looking like white brush strokes on a blue canvas, the weather was splendid. Speaking of names, “Gamkaskloof, in the language of the Khoisan who named it, means Lion Kloof. I marvelled at a time when lions, in abundance, roamed this land. The descent makes for excellent riding. Loose and rocky in places, open and flowing in others, the road ebbs and flows through fields of proteas in places, with the occasional stream crossing, now reduced to a trickle by drought. Some mountain bikers making the descent became the odd moving chicane as we endeavoured to get past. The more skilled riders match a motorcycle for speed as they strut their stuff down the gnarly dirt track. The final part of the descent gets steep and somewhat rutted with hairpin bends and drop offs. A sign at the foot of the pass announces that you are entering the Swartberg Nature Reserve, Gamkaskloof. You then ride on a few more k’s to a beautiful small valley dotted with the renovated homes of the early settlers. These dwellings can be booked by visitors to Die Hel, or alternatively, like in our case, you can camp.
I waited for everyone to arrive, with Krisjan on the TVS bringing up the rear scant minutes behind the pukka adventure bikes. He reported that some of the rocky sections had been a bit hairy but that the light weight of the little 180 had allowed him to pick the best line down the road. He was full of praise for the plucky and tough little Indian bike. The TVS once again proved that it is not the size of the bike in the adventure that counts but rather the size of the adventure in the bike!. The Killer bee was huge fun to ride in the dirt. Running down steep inclines against compression allowed minimal use of the brakes, whilst the steep uphills were despatched with torquey tenacity. The adequate suspension travel, 21 inch front wheel and relative light weight make technical sections a bit of a non event.
It was late morning by now and the heat was building. We sat under the shaded veranda of the shop and quaffed a couple of cold beers and feasted on freshly baked farm bread, cheese and jam. The thatched shop is scattered with items that bear testimony to the history of the valley and the people who made it their home. Only in the early 1960’s did the road get built, finally linking the kloof to the outside world. Prior to that goods were brought into and out of the kloof by donkeys on a bridle path. The nearest town is Calitzdorp, so travel in and out of the valley was no mean feat. To this day there is only one road, the one that we had traversed, in and out of the Gamkaskloof. The shop and its surroundings, consisting of a small swimming pool and some green lawn flanked by a small vineyard, and dotted with the odd restored dwelling is an oasis in the harsh heat and singed landscape. We paid our camp fees, a paltry R50 each and rode a short distance to our campsite. We pitched tents, dispensing with the need for the flysheets as we expected the evening to be both dry and warm, then lay in the shade for a siesta.
In the late afternoon, wilting in the relentless heat, we went for a swim and a cold shandy. Rejuvenated, we returned to our camp to prepare our evening meal. Cobus and I got our trusty Trangia stoves going and sucked on a mug of red while I prepared our stew consisting of cubed rump steak, butternut, tomato, onion, potatoes and peas in their shells. As the light seeped from the sky and the heat softened to a balmy glow, the delicious aroma of the bubbling stew permeated the air. We shot the breeze for a couple of hours before ladling stew over the rice on our plates and tucking into what, even though I say it myself, was a damn fine chow! The mandatory Renoster coffee put the seal on what had turned out to be a really special day. The next day would see us going our respective ways, with Cobus and his boys meandering back on scenic dirt roads while I had in mind to ride Prince Alfred’s pass from the Langkloof over the mountain, to hit the national road near Keurbooms river, then on to PE.
Up at 5am we hastily packed up and rode out of our campsite by six. As is often the case, the ascent of Gamkaskloof in the early morning was a blast. The air was still cool and we were blessed with another splendid day albeit with signs of more serious heat in the offing. We gathered at the spot at the top of the pass where we had chatted with the bikers the previous day then rode back onto Swartberg pass. The pass, closed until a year odd back for the repair of storm damage, is in good nick. Cresting the pass and descending into the valley on the Oudtshoorn side is great adventure riding. The surface, whilst rocky in patches, is good and the views spectacular. At the foot of the pass we said our goodbyes and I sped off to meet with my buddy from Sedgefield, Mike, with whom I was to ride Prince Alfred’s pass.
The ride into Oudtshoorn is amazing. Back on tar, the road sweeps through twisties that beg for full leathers, knee sliders and a Sports weapon. Even the KLR was a blast pitched on its ear through the bends. I met up with Mike at the foot of Outeniqua pass on the Karoo side, where we punished a quick breakfast before riding the N9, and a short piece of route 62, before turning off at the hamlet of Avontuur. Back on the dirt the two KLR’S ran in tandem up and over Prince Alfred’s pass. The guys in the western Cape are seriously blessed with fantastic adventure bike routes. Once again, great views and good dirt roads made for splendid riding. With the day now properly hot we stopped at the well known “Angie’s G Spot” for a cold coke. I had a good chuckle at the welcoming sign at Angie’s which advertises Hot beer, lousy food, bad service, “kak” accommodation – welcome to Angie’s G Spot.
Only when you ride these roads do you fully appreciate the devastation wreaked by the fires which have ravished these areas. Charred stumps stand as stark reminders, on blackened hillsides, of the fury of the blaze. Typically I would have continued straight along this road through a section of the magnificent Knysna forest. The fires however, have reduced this area to a blackened wasteland, so we veered off left to eventually meet the N2 just east of Plett. Once again it was time for goodbyes as Mike returned to Sedgefield and I hopped on to the N2 to PE, which I reached by around 3pm after being buffeted for the last 80 k’s by a proper side wind. Welcome to the windy city indeed!
After a few days with family it was time to return home, so at 5.15 am on the morning of the 26th, I again hopped on the Killer Bee and in the cool of the morning ran at 5000 rpm’s to Cradock. This equates to around a true 122 kph but interestingly increases the fuel consumption significantly. The KLR had, to this point, running at 4,500 rpm, averaged better than 19 kpl consistently. An extra 500 rpm dropped the consumption closer to 16 kpl, reducing the tank range from 450 k’s to around 350. I rode the more scenic route to Gariep Dam and then to Bloem where I downed a quick milkshake before once more braving what was now consistent 38 degree heat. With a total travelling time of 11 hours and 15 minutes I rolled up to my gate in Pretoria, having smashed a 1100 k ride. The Killer Bee had passed the road trip test with flying colours! Total oil consumption for the just on 3000 k trip was a mere 400 ml. Given the heat and sometimes extreme conditions, that is more than acceptable. The simplicity of this honest motorcycle totally won me over. Even the comfort was a surprise. A reasonably plush seat [for a dualsport bike] and a neutral riding position both contribute to the ability to crack long days in the saddle. A fuel range of at least 350 k’s minimises fuel stops and gives piece of mind. The speeds at which I rode allowed proper sightseeing, as opposed to the typical full speed ahead trap we typically fall into. The standard screen, whilst taking all the blast off my chest, allowed enough air to still bring a degree of cooling on the sweltering parts of the ride.
I often get asked how I carry my gear when on an extended road trip. On this trip I exclusively used the excellent products produced locally by All Terrain Gear. My tent and camping equipment, being groundsheet, pillow [a super comfortable memory foam “visco elastic” pillow available from XKULCHA], sleeping bag, thermal liner and self inflating mattress all fit into my ATG dry bag which is easily secured to the back seat with its adjustable straps. It forms a great backrest too. My cooking kit goes in my topbox together with an Olympus “ruggedised” camera. A small cooler bag carries the days food and hip flask for “Renosters”. A chamois for visor cleaning lives here too. The rest of my kit, being clothes, tools, puncture repair kit and running shoes go in a set of ATG 20l soft luggage panniers which come with all the straps to secure them properly to the bike. Despite the extreme riding conditions they kept water and dust out and stayed securely in place. The waterproof and dustproof roll top inner bags allow you to remove your kit without having to take the pannier bags themselves off the bike. I was impressed by how nicely they cleaned up post trip after a brushing with a soft brush and soapy water. Highly recommended. [Also available from XKULCHA as well as other selected motorcycle accessory outlets]
As for clothing, I protected my feet with my trusty and comfortable Forma Adventure boots. [Available from DMD] Riding pants were my ancient, but still serviceable Fox freestyle motocross pants which have serious cooling vents. I don’t think you can get them any more but XKULCHA Dakar pants have served me well on similar trips in the past. In this heat an airflow jacket is essential, so my trusty Alpinestars airflow was pressed into service. It also gives the peace of mind of good soft armour. For cooler early mornings I pull my Alpinestars Enduro jacket over the airflow as a wind proof shell. It is tough and rugged and suitable for extreme offroad conditions. It is very well vented too. It has no armour so is only suitable as a shell and for some abrasion protection but not for knocks. My helmet is a Bell Adventure helmet which I find extremely comfortable with a visor that seals particularly well. I do however find that it is more wind affected than my Airoh Adv helmet, but about on a par in this regard to my Arai tour X. Gloves are a brand called FIVE-5, and are a mix of tough textile with leather reinforcing in high stress areas and are well ventilated. They have proven to be hard wearing and durable and very comfortable without any bunching in the palm area. Unfortunately I have no idea where I got them. So there you have it guys and gals!
I may have rattled on a bit with this account, but I really tried to recount what an absolute joy it is to ride a motorcycle far and wide across our magnificent land. Maybe you are a strictly tar rider. It doesn’t matter. Get out of town with like minded buds and live a little. You owe it to yourself! Motorcycles offer a unique opportunity to enjoy a real modern day adventure especially given the weather and countryside we have in SA.