Our plan, if you can call it that, was to follow a roughly circular route of a gentlemanly distance and with minimal time on tar roads. If all went well, we’d be back at the Warmwaterberg hot springs in 3 days. We had enough food to keep us alive and enough whiskey to keep us happy!
We had got off to a late start that morning from the campsite at Warmwaterberg hot springs. Our heavy loads and untrained legs meant slow progress, and by midday we arrived at our first real obstacle that even the lowest granny-gear would not get us over – a 4m high gate across the road. A great swathe of the Little Karoo had been turned into a game farm and the owners had taken control of the public road, something my 40-year old map made no mention of. A sign on the gate indicated a bunch of thing you were not allowed to do and one of them was to ride a bike – something to do with dangerous animals.
We were in no mood to let mere wild animals spoil our trip. It was time to assert our ancient right of access. Within minutes we had made friends with the young ranger manning the gate who organised an escort to accompany us to the other side of the game park. I won’t say we bribed him, but apples and sweets were exchanged. We dumped our panniers and crates onto the escort bakkie driven by another friendly young ranger. The massive gates swung open, and unencumbered by luggage we peddled off behind our escort bakkie, furiously trying to keep up. In this lion-infested country, no one wanted to be a straggler. The far gate was only a 20km ride away but by the halfway mark, word of our unorthodox traverse had reached the big-boss ranger and we were ordered to a halt.
The boss ranger was a large man in combat fatigues who glared at us through his wrap-around dark glasses. I’ll call him Big Boy. His partner, short and muscled, and also in full combat gear (call him Shorty) stood a few paces back, scanning the horizon like a pro. Both had conspicuous gun-sized bulges under their combat jackets. We’d only just got started and already our expedition seemed like it was about to end badly.
“Who are you?”, said Big Boy
I stepped forward and extended a hand.
“Hi. I’m Stephen.” Our friendly smiles didn’t do much to lighten the air. Big Boy’s expression hardly changed. Shorty stared down the road in case there were more of us coming.
“No, but I mean who are you? What are you doing here? Are you on a race? Are you an organised group or what?”
“Well we’re more of a disorganised group!” I replied, trying to make a joke of it, but I could see we were just pissing him off.
I explained that we were just a group of friends from the city who thought it would be fun to pack some food and tents onto our bikes and head off down the dirt road relying on only our wits and the kindness of strangers. We would keep riding for as long as we were having fun, and sleep wherever we liked. This was clearly too much for Big Boy to comprehend. We weren’t normal. We had no helmets, no lycra, no clear plan and no support vehicle. He didn’t like us and he wanted us off his turf.
Big Boy’s turf was a massive game farm and his job was to be nice to R5000-a-night foreign guests and to shoot poachers, and we didn’t into any part of this picture. He looked at Shorty and shook his head. “Die ouens is f*kn mal”. They both seemed to come to the conclusion that while we may be mad, we weren’t dangerous. Trigger fingers relaxed but still no smiling.
“Ok. You can’t ride here” said Big Boy. “This is private property and there are wild animals and stuff. You guys better get your bikes and everything on the bakkie. I will drive you to the far gate.” His tone of voice made it clear that he had better things to do and there would be no further discussion.
And so we were unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road on the far side of the game-farm, somewhat shaken by this rude start to our trip. There were still a few hours of daylight left, so we repacked and set off down the road and put as much distance between ourselves and the game farm as we could.
Up ahead, the soft sand of a dry river bed offered a promising campsite. There is not much else soft about the Karoo! We chose a spot well hidden from the road and got on with the job of setting up camp and making supper. The evening was a little tense. After our experience with Big Boy and Shorty, we were convinced that the place was crawling with armed and aggressive farmers out to get us city folk – and if they didn’t get us we were bound to get washed away in a flash flood. Of course nothing happened and by sunrise we were in a much better mood altogether.
IN SEARCH OF WATER
Our mission for Day 2 was to find water. Our planned route would eventually cross the mighty Touws River but despite the enticingly drawn blue line on my map there was no guarantee that the river would be flowing, or that the water would be drinkable. A few kms down the road a bakkie drove up. This time it was a friendly farmer who stopped to chat and assured us there was water ahead. So we pedalled on. I was riding a 30yr old made-in-Springs Raliegh dikwiel complete with 10-speed gearing. The bike’s Shimano Positron II indexed shifters (thankfully now obsolete) used a solid wire cable which was prone to snap without warning – which it obligingly did, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest bike shop. Now I had to dismount and get my hands greasy every time I wanted to change gear. This was a drag and I thought it would be easier to shift gears while riding by simply giving the rear derailleur a sharp nudge with my right foot. Not so smart. I kicked the derailleur right into the spokes of the back wheel and came to a skidding halt. No spokes broken, but the derailleur was a mangled mess of cheap steel and plastic. It was time for a tea-break anyway so we got the stove lit and the tools out. It would be single-speed for me from here on.
We needed water – again! A key pillar of our survival strategy on this trip was that we would be able to rely on the kindness of strangers. It had never failed me before but I was beginning to wonder. First Big Boy and Shorty had not been very kind, now the problem was that there were simply no strangers to be found. According to my map, the road we were on should have been peppered with dwellings, but whenever we got to one it was either a broken ruin, or a closed-up weekender’s cottage. The Little Karoo was all but deserted – it’s sheep and ostrich farming heyday long past. At last a long downhill stretch brought us, hot and thirsty, to the Touws River (with actual water in it, and lined with shade trees). Sardines on Provita for lunch never tasted so good!
After a short siesta it was time to leave the shade and hit the dust. Water was the big question. Should we fill up all available bottles and bags with river water and struggle with the extra load on the long ride ahead, or ride light and gamble on finding more water ahead? The light bikes/sore legs argument won and we pressed on. Luckily just as the sun was setting we rounded a bend to find a beautiful oasis of green lucerne fields, date palms, ostriches, a farm house – and some actual people doing actual farming stuff. After warm greetings and introductions, the farmer said he would be happy to provide water and show us to a suitable camping spot on his farm. But his wife would have none of it. She insisted that we pitch our tents right there on her manicured front lawn and plied us with cold cokes and packets of chips from the farm shop. Our faith in the kindness of strangers was restored.
RETURN TO CIVILIZATION
Our first two days had been hot and dry, so waking up that morning on the farmers soft lawn to a grey sky was a welcome change. After coffee and farewells we were on our way. With a nice tailwind and two days-worth of food supplies lighter, we made excellent progress across some beautiful terrain.
Near the end of our circular route, our attempt to steer clear of tar was foiled by another game farm and privatised public road. A big yellow sign gave a phone number to call if one wanted to object to the locked gate across our preferred route. So we had no option but to head for the R62 and share our last 20km with cars and trucks doing 120km/h. It was not the best end to 3 fantastic days on dirt, but the cold beer at Ronnies’ Sex Shop and a long soak in the hot springs at Warmwaterberg made up for it.
And you can do it too!
Photos by G. Davis
The plan was simple. We would pack some food and tents on our bikes and head off down the dirt roads of the Klein Karoo. We would keep riding for as long as we were having fun, and sleep wherever we liked. We had no lycra, no fancy gear, no clear plans and no support vehicle…
3 DAYS | ⇔ 132 km | + 988m | ≡ Tar/ Gravel