With no pressing deadlines, for once, I could decide at the last minute to head off to Ceres and the Matroosberg for a couple of nights in search of fresh snow. What the exact idea was I’m still not sure, but riding up the mountain in the freezing cold was without a doubt one of the best cycling experiences I’ve had thus far. It would have been warmer to wait for the storm to pass and head up when the UCT skiing club takes to the slopes next week, but where would the adventure be in that?
I arrived just ahead of the storm at the Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve on the evening of Tuesday the 6th of May and spent a comfortable night in a cabin, while the storm blew in. With every gale force gust I was more pleased with my decision not to camp.
When I woke on Wednesday morning the power was off on the farm, a blue gum tree had toppled in the night and pulled the power lines down I was later to discover. With squalls blowing through intermittently there was no need to rush so I waited for mid-day before setting off up the mountain. I was initially joined by one of the farm dogs, a super fit golden retriever but after a little, eight kilometre, exploration lap of the quad bike trails I decided to rather take her home than risk having someone else’s dog follow me into a snow storm.
The Matroosberg peak was reaching up into dense cloud cover, its summit at two thousand two hundred and forty nine meters above sea level was entirely obscured. The climb is roughly eleven kilometres long, from the reserve’s main office, and it is brutally steep. It is definitely a tougher climb than the Merino Monster, which lies across the Ceres basin towards the North West. Within a kilometre I was hike-a-biking the steepest sections and riding the more gentle gradients – grateful for the wind at my back.
All told I made it about nine kilometres into the climb before the elements got the better of me. Initially on the lower slopes the wind drove a steady rain into my back, but as I gained altitude the rain tuned to hail and eventually that strange icy snow we get on the mountains of the Western Cape. It certainly wasn’t the type to drift lazily to earth; no, this snow was only discernible from the hail which preceded it by the fact that it was as likely to be gusted upwards by the wind as it was to fall to earth. Whereas the hail fell mercilessly, inexorably, to earth.
Having bundled myself up in an assortment of cycling and trail running wet weather gear my core and legs were relatively warm, all things considered, but my hands were freezing. My fingers screamed every time I touched a metal part of my bike, which considering I was pushing it a fair amount was too often. Then the nozzle on my bottle began to freeze between sips and the cold even affected my phone every time I took it out to take a photo. Eventually a small snow drift caught me off guards, while taking photos, and forced me off my bike at one thousand eight hundred and sixty metres above sea level. That’s higher than the summit of the Merino Monster, higher than I’d ever climbed on a bike in the Western Cape.
At that point I decided it was probably wise to put on my extra waterproof jacket before continuing up the mountain. But when I tried to work the zips I realised my fingers weren’t cooperating, and there was still a white knuckle descent into the teeth of the wind… So I turned for home.
The descent was surprisingly without incident, given the snow, hail and rain being whipped into my eyes. Apart from a puddle which had swelled since I crossed it going up, which left me with sopping wet and soon to be freezing feet and served to encourage me to give my frozen fingers a rest from hanging on the brakes – rather racing downhill to the warmth of the Matroosberg cottages.
Tomorrow it’s back to Stellenbosch and deadlines, but maybe there will be snow on the Jonkershoek Mountains too and I can put work off for another day…
MUST KNOW & TIPS.
- Skills & Bike. Make sure that you are fit enough and your bike is in good working order to undertake the adventure. Decrease your tire pressure to get more traction or fit tires with big pointy knobs or specific snow tires. In icy conditions your bike may not work well – your chain, cassette and mechs can freeze up, so you may well end up leaving it in a single sprocket and using your chainrings to change gears. Follow this guide on how to ride in different kinds of snow.
- Keep an eye on the weather. Look on SnowReport.co.za to see where the latest snowfall predictions and reports.
- Camping & Accommodation: There are a variety of accommodation options in the Matroosberg Nature Reserve from cottages and campsites.
- Water & Food. Be prepared and take enough food and in case you get stuck out. Take a hot drink (preferably in a flask rather than your water bottle).
- Take suitable warm and waterproof gear. Keep your feet, face and hands warm and dry as they are especially prone to frostbite. Wear winter cycling boots, or overshoes to keep the wind off and the snow out. Walking boots (with grippy soles) and flat pedals work well, especially as once you stop and place your foot in the snow or hike-a-bike, you will have a hard time getting your cleat back into your pedal. Find out more about gear here >
- Sunglasses & Sunblock. The glare coming off snow can cause sunburn.
- Navigation. Use GPS and mapping tools to ensure that you do not get lost. There is not always mobile reception and freezing temperatures can effect equipment, so you can’t rely on GPS navigation. Take a map and compass for more remote expeditions.
- Ride in a group rather than on your own. If you do ride alone, tell someone else where you are going, when you will be back and any alternative routes or places you might stop.
- Emergency If you are going far take some extra emergency equipment, like a plastic bivvy bag and/or group shelter and lights.
- Where else can I find snow in the Western Cape: see Seamus’s list of top places to go play in the snow.
With a massive storm predicted, and promises of snow, Seamus Allardice heads off for the Matroosberg, in search of a mid-winter adventure. Covering more than 1000 hectares of stunning mountain terrain, the Matroosberg Nature Reserve boasts one of the highest trails in the Western Cape and is a popular winter playground for skiers, hikers and snow seekers.
Seamus Allardice and Zane Schmahl take on a 10-day bikepacking adventure following the Bikamino route through the most sparsely populated but exceptionally hospitable region of South Africa – the Namaqualand. Seamus shares the journey that would take them from hidden valleys to icy oceans, through dirt, sand and snow.