There may be easier ways to traverse a region, but there are few that can immerse you in the landscape quite like cycling. Zane’s plan from the start was for him and I to carry all the gear we would need if we were camping every night. This meant bikes loaded with bikepacking saddle and handlebar bags plus backpacks on our backs. The route we would follow cut across the arid Northern Cape – from the once booming mining outpost of O’Kiep to the icy waters of the Atlantic Oceanside village of Hondeklipbaai – and would form the base of the new Bikamino Namaqualand route.
Bikamino is a project proposed by Open Africa, a tourism development network which helps small local businesses establish rural tourism routes, and conceived by mountain event organisers, EcoBound. The Namaqua Bikamino offers a twelve day bikepacking route through the Namaqua Coastal Region all year round. Riders will be able to take on the journey entirely self-supported, organise their own support crew, or utilize the accredited network of guides to make the trip a little easier. There will also be a three day Bikamino stage ride next year. The competitive among you can race the total distance in one go, while those looking to soak up the scenery and culture, as we did, can enjoy a far more sedate pace, three race villages and Namaqua hospitality at its best.
Day 1: O’Kiep to Nigramoep | 48km, 830m climbing
Having started the initial Bikamino recce in O’Kiep a month and a half earlier I was already familiar with the O’Kiep Country Hotel and more importantly their amazing food. After a hearty breakfast we braved the cold and packed what we wouldn’t need into one side of the vehicle – which would be staying in the hotel parking – and the essentials (read: surf boards and wetsuits) which we would need later in the trip into the other, for photographer Jacques Marais to collect on his way past.
Eventually, at 10am we actually departed O’Kiep. And that set the tone for the Bikamino, regardless of how early we tried to hit the road we never managed to depart before 08:50. But we soon discovered that, especially in winter, there’s no point in rushing when bikepacking. Taking your time is part of the charm.
We crossed the N7 highway just outside O’Kiep and made our way towards Nababeep along a jeep track which cuts through the granite koppies. Spectacular quiver trees dot the hills and occasionally one would be dramatically silhouetted against the crisp blue sky. Passing through the once booming, now slowly dying, copper mining town of Nababeep we looked for a café for a coffee stop. But, it being a Sunday morning we were out of luck so we stopped on the first hill outside town for a roadside coffee instead.
With caffeine coursing through our veins we descended for nearly ten kilometres into the Schaaprivier Canyon. Our designation, Nigramoep, was on the far side of the canyon however so after the thrilling descent came the toil up a climb of nearly equal length.
From the top of the climb we picked out way past a defunct copper mine and into the Nigramoep valley. Cresting the final rise of the day we were amazed by what lay nestled ahead of us. Strikingly green with clusters of white washed buildings Nigramoep was not the farmstead we were expecting, but a mountain hamlet. Before urbanisation robbed the Namaqualand of the majority of its rural inhabitants Nigramoep had boasted a primary school, hostel and three shops. Now, half a century after those busy days, it is home to four permanent households and a quaint collection of guest houses.
There we were welcomed into the home of Suzette and André Louw. They are both Namaqualanders who moved away but who couldn’t resist the call of the landscapes of their childhoods and returned to the area upon retirement. Suzette is the soul of Namaqua hospitality and kept plying us with food while André held court, regaling Zane and I with story upon story. Their decision to retire to the quiet and unspoiled wilderness of Namaqualand seemed a remarkable one to me. The attraction of their lifestyle is undeniable but the apparent self-imposed isolation made me question if I would be able to live like they do.
Day 2: Nigramoep to Naries | 43km, 865m climbing
Leaving Nigramoep took some time and admittedly quite a bit of willpower. After thinking the Louws were isolated initially, we discovered the opposite was actually true. They are the heart of a vibrant and tight-knit community. I could have happily spent the week there but that would have meant not seeing the rest of the remarkably diverse Namaqualand.
Eventually, with André’s hand-drawn map in hand, we departed Nigramoep for Naries. The two locations are probably less than 30km apart as the crow flies, but we had a significant dog’s leg to ride as we wanted to check out the Kastelsberg Pass. Cycling along the mountain jeep tracks, was great; especially on fresh legs and after a day of getting used to the added weight on my bike and back. The mountain meadows, which characterised the early part of the day, soon became my favourite landscapes of the trip, as they are markedly more fertile than the surrounding peaks or Sandveld plains.
At the top of the Kastelsberg Pass we stopped to fire off a few social media posts and Zane responded to emails before descending towards the R355. If you, like me, have never been one for road names or numerical designations you probably don’t know that the R355 is the most infamous gravel road in the country. It is the longest uninterrupted gravel road between two towns in South Africa. Originating in the Warm Bokkeveld, north of Ceres, its famous gavel only stretch passes the AfrikaBurn campsite on its way to Calvinia. With a well-earned reputation as a tyre destroyer it has become a rite of passage for adventure motorcyclists. After Calvinia it continues on, heading North West to Springbok – where it briefly boasts an asphalt surface – before turning due West for Kleinzee.
We joined it mid-way between Springbok and Kleinzee, turned East and headed inland towards our base for the second night, Naries. Getting to Naries proved a little more interesting than we had expected though. Not due to any difficulties though, but rather a chance encounter with a fellow cyclist provided one of the most intriguing moments of the trip.
Cresting a small rise we met a fellow bikepacker riding in the opposite direction. But unlike us this guy really knew what he was doing. Fully loaded, with what he estimated to be fifty kilograms of gear and food Davide Travelli made Zane and I feel very soft in comparison.
Davide has spent three years on the road already; cycling through the Americas, from Alaska to Patagonia, before starting the next leg of his global circumnavigation in Cape Town. His plan is to head up Namibia’s coast before cutting across into Botswana and riding through Central Africa into North Africa and finishing the leg in Cairo. From Egypt he’ll be heading into the Middle East for his traverse of Asia. Talk about big plans!
Inspired by Davide we set off again towards Naries, knowing we’d have to summit the nine kilometre long Spektakel Pass to reach our destination. Fortunately that particular climb is on asphalt, but it is still a doozy. Fully loaded and with a break at the view point it took us an hour and twenty minutes to complete; so we were very happy to reach the hospitality of Naries – where a pool too cold for more than dipping tired calf muscles in awaited, along with a hearty tomato soup lunch.
Zane and I were joined that evening by Frans and Karien Fourie, with a huge array of video equipment – including a massive camera and a lens which looked fit for star gazing. Frans would be documenting the trip in order to make a film to enter in adventure lifestyle film festivals and from there on out our time was not our own as him getting the shot became the priority.
Day 3: Naries to Houthoop | 96km, 810m climbing
The third day of the Bikamino extended recce started with the descent of Spektakel Pass. Zane and I had debated if the extra weight would counter the added wind resistance enough for us to top my fastest speed of seventy kilometres per hour, which I managed on my gravel bike on the previous trip. And as it turned out, it’s difficult to tuck with a backpack on, so I only managed to reach sixty four kilometres per hour, but after grinding up at less than ten kilometres per hour the previous afternoon freewheeling down at any speed was a massive improvement.
The view over the Sandveld towards the Atlantic Ocean was obstructed by the malmokie – a thick sea mist which brings vital moisture inland when the temperature inversion between land and sea sucks cold, moist, air onto the coastal plain. The malmokie made the first hour or so of the day’s ride pretty chilly too. Once it burnt off though the day was pleasantly warm and with no wind we made good time, ticking off the kilometres to Kleinzee.
In Kleinzee we met up with Frans, Karien and Jeanene Jessnitz. Jeanene manages the Namaqua Coastal Route project for Open Africa and lives in Kleinzee so she was keen to take us to the best local spot – Die Blikbord. After a lazy lunch and with close on thirty kilometres still to ride we had a decision to make. Frans wanted a sunset shot of us riding on the beach, but there was about two hours to kill before we could get that shot. So rather than ride to Houthoop and then ride back almost straight away we went down to the beach and hid from the wind which had come up over the course of the late afternoon. Eventually the sun sank low enough; we fell around in the soft sand, decided that pushing our bikes was the only option and got – what we hope will prove to be some amazing footage – in the can.
Thereafter we switched on our bike lights and braved the gathering cold for the final stretch to Houthoop. Fortunately dinner, including muscle soup, lamb stew and pumpkin fritters awaited us there – along with the effervescent photographer Jacques Marais and the unofficial president of Namaqualand, Oom Dudley Wessels.
Day 4: Houthoop to Luiperdskloof | 71km, 1 335m climbing
Heading back inland, after a night spent near the coast was always going to include some climbing; especially as the day’s final destination was the Luiperdskloof cottage in the North Eastern mountains of the Namaqua National Park. But first we had the plains of the Sandveld to re-cross as Zane and I rode to Komaggas.
The by now familiar sparse Sandveld vegetation is, I will admit, not my favourite of the Namaqua floral regions; so I was amazed and frankly delighted when the grey shrubs suddenly gave way to thorn trees and green grasses just before Komaggas. It was like cycling unexpectedly over a rise and into the bushveld.
We stopped under a tree for a bit, as by that stage both of us were looking for any excuse to get our backpacks off for a couple of minutes. The constant weight of a pack on your shoulders, regardless of how comfortable it might be, gets wearisome after three and a bit days on the bike…
After our bushveld stop we made our way into Komaggas were we stopped for a lunch of Frito chips and a shared Black Label quart. It was hands down the least healthy meal we had on the trip, but at least we could ride it off. And the next section provided the opportunity to sweat out those calories pretty quickly as the route began to climb through a steppe like terrain into the foothills of the mountains. The climb to the Messelpad, which runs along the top of the mountain range, took us from two hundred meters above sea level to a shade over six hundred meters in eight kilometres. It was pretty steep in sections, but the amazing riding on the Messelpad and the views over the more Namaqua mountain meadows it provided more than made up for the exertion required.
Zane provided the excitement of the day on that section of the route when we rode through a flock of grazing goats, only to be chased by the Africanis dogs which were guarding the flock. Zane had been fiddling with his GoPro as we past the dogs, which had hardly batted an eyelid until we got between them and their flock – then they decided we were a threat and proceeded to give chase. Zane came flying past me as the barking started, but was too intent on not getting bitten to get a photo, despite having a camera in hand. Fortunately the pair of hounds were of a medium size, if one of the big Anatolian shepherds – which are so popular in the region – we would still be fleeing.
A few kilometres later we opened one of the Namaqua National Park’s unmanned gates, descended the top half of the Wildeperdehoek Pass and then started the agonising final ascent to Luiperdskloof. The final six kilometres of the day were filled with false summits, but eventually we reached the exquisitely secluded Luiperdskloof. It is definitely worth the climb and if you ride in on your own I’d suggest taking hiking gear and spending a couple of days off the bike exploring the mountains on foot to really soak up the remoteness of the location.
Day 5: Luiperdskloof to Hondeklipbaai | 72km, 586m climbing
By the fifth day fatigue was starting to set in, in a big way and we decided to reroute down the Wildeperdehoek Pass, which would cut ten rather mountainous kilometres from the day’s ride. We set off, climbing and then descending out of the mountains around Luiperdskloof before regrouping with Jacques, Frans and Karien on the Wildeperdehoek Pass. We made roadside coffee while they took photos and video footage, before setting up to capture the panoramic vistas over the Namaqua grasslands which the Wildeperdehoek Pass offers.
With the cameras rolling we sped down the pass and set our sights on Hondeklipbaai, which required a third traverse of the Sandveld in as many days. I will confess to a serious sense of humour failure… The relentless corrugations were starting to fray at my nerves. Then when Jacques told me, erroneously, that there were only eighteen kilometres left in the day I could almost taste the fish and chips from the Rooi Spinnekop restaurant, in Hondeklipbaai. By the time eighteen kilometres had ticked away we were still at least fifteen kilometres from our destination… so I lost my cool and angry pedalled the remaining distance at the fastest pace I’d managed throughout the trip. Fortunately double lunch and double servings of coffee cake were on hand to improve my mood. Along with the promise of a surf in the morning.
Day 6: Hondeklipbaai to Koringkorrel Baai
After a typically slow start to the morning, which had seen us get up an hour earlier than usual to hit the surf at sunrise, we eventually rolled out of Koingnaas where we had spent the night – after filling up with fuel and getting lost (no mean feat considering the town has about 12 streets). We did manage to have a surf though. I joined Zane for an hour before he left and Jacques took over in the water with me.
Unfortunately the surf proved to be the final straw for me and I came out of the water feeling exceptionally nauseas. Zane meanwhile had decided to drive the first section of the day to save some time, as we were already running late. By the time Jacques and I caught up with the rest of the crew, post surf, Zane had been riding for about five kilometres and was off the main gravel road onto the jeep tracks towards the coastal campsites in the Namaqua National Park.
I joined him briefly but only managed to ride five kilometres myself, before it became clear that riding was a bad idea. So I joined Jacques in the bakkie for the rest of the day. I was disappointed not to be able to finish what would have been my final day on the Bikamino, on the bike. But it does leave me with unfinished business in the Namaqualand.
That night we set up camp at Koringkorrel Baai; where in 1941, ex-South African Olympian turned Nazi agent, Robey Leibbrandt rowed ashore as he began what would ultimately prove to be an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Jan Smuts.
After five days of carrying all the camping gear on our bikes it was great to get the chance to pitch the Starlight II tent. I’d used the Explorer sleeping bag a few times by then and so I knew I would be warm in it while camping, regardless of the weather blowing in from the North West. At two in the morning I awoke to the sound of drizzle on the tent, a rarity for such a dry area – but also a hint of what was to come for poor Zane who would be carrying on alone from day seven onwards.
Days 7 to 10 | Snowbound in Leliefontein
On the morning of the seventh day of the Bikamino recce we broke up camp at Koringkorrel Baai and set out towards Groenriviermond. The initial plan had been for the section between Hondeklipbaai and Groenriviermond to be undertaken in a single day, but fortunately Oom Dudley dissuaded Zane from that idea.
The road which links the Namaqua National Park’s seaside campsites, including Koringkorrel Baai and Groenriviermond, is very much a 4×4 only sandy track. Zane had jumped in Oom Dudley’s bakkie for the day, to get some much needed rest before attempting to ride the final three days, so he was not subjected to slogging it out through the sand. It rapidly became apparent that nobody would be riding that stretch; so when the event takes place or people attempt the Bikamino themselves the plan is to allow for an entire day to traverse the twenty four kilometres between Koringkorrel Baai and Groenriviermond. About fifteen of those kilometres will require pushing through the sand, but if riders depart early while the sand is hard with morning dew it should not be an unduly difficult hike.
From Groenriviermond, which offers exceptional bird watching for any cyclists with an ornithological interest, we drove inland to Garies. In Garies, Jacques and I said our farewells to the rest of the group and departed for Stellenbosch, meetings, and uninterrupted internet connectivity. With every kilometre we travelled South – as we took turns to drive so the other could write, edit and upload content – we missed Namaqualand more.
Zane meanwhile had more riding to do. Departing Garies the following morning he took a bit long to get going. Having wasted the perfect weather of the morning by indulging in a second breakfast he soon found himself cycling into a head wind. As the road climbed first gradually and then steeply towards Leliefontein it started to rain, and then sleet…
By the time he reached Leliefontein it was nearly dark and the temperature had plummeted to near freezing. But it would get significantly colder overnight still, and he awoke to snow on the ninth day of the trip. He very briefly considered riding on as planned to Kamieskroon – but sensibly settled to wait out the worst of the weather from the warmth of Vera’s Guest House in Leliefontein.
The following day, with ice still covering the puddles on the rutted gravel road, Zane departed on the final leg of his journey. Again the weather and time pressures interceded and he decided not to complete the nearly one hundred kilometres back to O’Kiep, but rather to finish his ride in Kamieskroon and get a lift with Oom Dudley. While finishing in a vehicle was not exactly ideal; for Zane too the pressures of the outside world could not be held off for any longer. He could not afford to spend another day on the bike, out of email connectivity.
And perhaps that will be the issue for many people wanting to ride the full twelve day Bikamino route. It’s a long time to be away from the demands of electronic communications. Yes, there is cell phone reception in all the little Namaqua towns and at seven of the eleven overnight spots; but after riding all day the last thing you are going to feel like is checking, and worse replying to, work emails. Uploading a few photos to Instagram and checking in with the family is probably going to be the extent of most people’s electronic engagement; and that’s the way it should be. Zane and I were far too focused on our phones, but that’s the nature of what we were on the Bikamino trip to do.
For people simply coming to ride, the remoteness of the Namaqualand will seep into your soul and psyche. If you dip your toes in the shallow end, and start with the 3 day stage ride next year, the landscape and people will undoubtedly captivate you. It’ll draw you back to experience it in greater detail, to immerse yourself for a week. And then for two… You probably won’t be able to commit to twelve days off the bat, if you’re anything like me – life is just too busy to allow for so much time away – but the Namaqua Bikamino will inspire you to find a way to commit to a full twelve day journey.
I’ve now done three and six days, so I’m getting there. Next up is the full ride… and then… Well who knows, there’s still the Richtersveld and the Knersvlakte to explore.
I arrived at Nigramoep wondering how, despite its beauty, Suzette and André could move from my hometown of Stellenbosch to a hamlet in the Namaqua Mountains. Now I think I know, but it’s not something I can articulate. So all I can do is advise you to experience it for yourself. Perhaps you can put it into words, but then again you too might struggle to pin-point the mystical hold the Namaqualand gains on your soul.
Photo credit: Jacques Marais, Frans Fourie, Zane Schmahl and Seamus Allardice
MUST KNOW & TRAIL NOTES.
- Join a Bikamino group tour or challenge – ride or race the route. See full details on upcoming events on the Bikamino website.
- Skill level. 90% gravel roads, with a few jeep track sections. So you’ll need to be a proficient rider, but technical skills won’t hold you back on the Bikamino.
- Best time to go. Spring or Autumn are the best times to visit the Namaqualand. The day time temperatures are moderate then and it doesn’t get too cold at night. Spring flower season is the best time to go from a scenery point of view, but the usually quiet roads will be busy with 4×4 traffic then, so your bikepacking experience could be a little compromised by the dust kicked up by their tyres.
- Accommodation: You can camp throughout as Namaqualand is probably one of the safest regions in South Africa, but there are formal accommodation options available at all the stops barring Koringkorrel Baai and Groenriviermond.
- Group size: The only place where group size will be an issue is Luiperdskloof, which sleeps 6. But if you are prepared to camp then group size won’t be an issue.
- Trail head. The route starts at the O’Kiep Country Hotel, in O’Kiep just north of Springbok. Accommodation can be booked here: www.okiep.co.za.
- Water & Food. Keep the daily distance in mind when packing food and water for each leg. Usually you’ll be able to restock at a spaza store every 50km or so throughout the region, so while hydration packs are a essential to carry with you – you might not have to fill them more than twice if you are carrying 3-4 bottles.
- Gear. Take warm clothes for the evenings and sun protection for the day. We found that cycling in a loose long sleeve cotton top is a good way to keep the sun off. Temperatures drop abruptly at night and can be freezing even during summer. Download our bikepacking gear check list here.
- Navigation. When entering to ride the Bikamino at any stage of the year you’ll receive the GPS files, printed maps, route descriptions and a Spot Tracker, in case of emergencies. EcoBound will also book your accommodation for you, which means you just have to show up and ride.
- Road Conditions. You will be riding primarily on gravel roads with no bike lanes. Outside of flower season car and truck traffic is limited, but what traffic there is tends to be mining vehicles and they drive the rough gravel roads at break neck speeds. So stick left, especially on blind rises. Please ride responsibly and stay alert. The off-road trails are predominantly jeep tracks.
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