Words by Lynnae Endersby, Photographs by David Malan.
On a wet Saturday morning, bikes loaded on our cars, we set off for Kruisrivier campsite near Calitzdorp and the start of our ambitious 6-day mid-winter bikepacking adventure to the infamous ‘Die Hel’ (Gamkaskloof). By evening a massive cold front arrived, bringing with it copious amounts of rain which saw us move our braai to the camp’s ablution block stoep! I spent a restless night listening to large raindrops popping against my tent, and woke up strangely craving popcorn, surrounded by tree debris and wondering what would await us on the Road to Die Hel.
GETTING INTO THE RITUAL
DAY 1 – CALITZDORP TO CANGO MOUNTAIN (46 km)
Everyone made it through the night (some drier than others). As we were emerging from our soggy tents a morning ritual developed – the bubbling pots of oats, brewing of coffee and the day ahead discussed while wearing all the clothing we’d packed.
With the bikes fully loaded, we set off, leaving the cars at the campsite. Riding unsupported meant we had to carry only absolute necessities – tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear, food, clothes, and of course spares. I re-packed my bike about 6 times to accommodate everything! After a final weigh-in, the combined bike and load weight was just over 32kg. Ouch… Riding my heavy bike felt awkward, and climbing out of the saddle took some practice. By day 2 I had mastered it. The roads were wet and muddy, but nicely compacted. We stopped at Kobus se Gat for lunch and discovered delicious roosterkoek and a big indoor fireplace to defrost us.
We had the whole campsite at Cango Mountain Resort to ourselves – warm showers, pools, and huge green lawns. That night the temperature plummeted and I struggled to sleep with an arctic chill enveloping my tent. I cursed my sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner, which I only then discovered had a comfort rating of a balmy 11°C.The temperature had dropped well below that!
WILDER THAN USUAL WILD CAMPING
DAY 2 – CANGO MOUNTAIN TO WILD CAMPING
Fearing freezing to death, I got up early, had a hot shower and started boiling water for coffee. The other cyclists started emerging from soggy tents yet again. This was our Wild Camping day, and the plan was to ride to De Rust (still near Oudtshoorn), through Klaarstroom and then find a spot to wild camp for the night.
Arriving in De Rust after slipping and sliding a bit on the gravel roads from Cango Mountain Resort, we went in search of pastries and coffee. Purchasing additional blankets was very high on my priority list and I visited every shop that could possibly sell them. Some still had Christmas decorations for sale, but alas, no blankets. I looked at a pile of newspapers and I knew what I had to do – these were desperate times – and bought 4 copies of the latest edition of Die Burger to insulate my sleeping bag! We set off for the most amazing cycle through Meiringspoort, where we had a beer at the side of the road before heading to Klaarstroom.
Another beautiful town, Klaarstroom had just the basics: petrol, a small bottle store, and a café, where we purchased all we’d need for that evening and for breakfast. I opted for some South African anti-freeze (Old Brown Sherry) to get me through the night. Loaded with fresh supplies, the search for a Wild Camping spot commenced.
I’d never wild camped, so I was both excited and nervous. After rejecting a few spots, the perfect spot was found by the more seasoned wild campers. Las skillfully lit a small fire which really made our evening. We all collected firewood and rocks to perch on and started preparing supper as the sun set. We were in a most beautiful spot, we all had warm food and a warming drink – life was good.
Just before the sun set we heard a troop of baboons up in the mountain. “They are actually quite close” I thought to myself. “Probably live up there…., they would never come down…”
Climbing into my Die Burger lined sleeping bag I was confident the piles of paper would do a good job of keeping me warm. They certainly helped, but I was awake again for most of another super cold night. I regretted my life choices, while clad in every item of clothing I had packed. I even brought a warm rock from the fire into my tent!
Then came the baboons…..
Loud baboon banter echoed through the valley with the males screaming (not Dave, Las, James and Charl). It sounded like the whole troop was coming over for a party at our place.
As I lay awake, waiting for the troop to arrive at my tent (I was the first tent they would encounter), I was again regretting my life choices: Why did I leave food in my tent, why am I wild camping?
I could hear everyone moving around nervously in their tents, hoping they wouldn’t get invaded. Eventually the baboons moved off and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We woke up to ice on our tents and resuscitated our tiny fire – happy to have survived another icy night, and the threat of a land grab by baboons.
DAY 3 & 4 – WILD CAMPING TO PRINCE ALBERT – 48KM
After wild camping, everyone was looking forward to a warm shower, some luxury and a full rest day at our next stop in Prince Albert. We cruised into town along smooth tar roads and headed straight to a restaurant called The Lazy Lizard for some real food. The following day we explored the town, went cheese tasting and did some bike tinkering and route checking.
THE TREACHEROUS ROAD TO HELL
DAY 5 – PRINCE ALBERT TO DIE HEL: 60km with 1600m of Elevation gain.
We left some gear in Prince Albert to reduce the weight on our bikes for the descent into and the ascent up again, out of Die Hel. The forecast for rain later in the afternoon didn’t look great, so we headed off as early as we could to attack Swartberg Pass. This is a brutal climb, but the view is so beautiful and well worth the struggle! Just before the summit we turned off for Die Hel. Ominously, the weather started turning as we descended into Die Hel and we were met by all sorts of road surfaces not exactly suited to gravel bikes with heavy loads. However, if James could do it on a road bike with 28 C tyres, we could all do it!
The scenery changed with almost every turn, and the road got pretty technical. We soldiered on and it was slow going. There were no flat stretches. It felt like you were either climbing or descending, with no mercy!
I must admit that my sense of humour failed as the icy rain and mud assaulted us. The never ending climbing got to me, and I knew there was a very long and technical descent ahead that I would have to do with frozen fingers and toes. Thankfully, Sarah waited for me and we finally started descending into Die Hel. The decent was just over 7km in total and by the time we got down everyone was super cold and soaked to the bone. Die Hel definitely lived up to its name that day and even though I wanted to be grumpy and moan about how cold I was (and I did, sorry everyone), I was happy we’d all made it down intact. And some of us were still smiling and having a jol!
Thankfully, we’d decided not to camp, but to stay in a cottage in Die Hel. This decision was a real life saver, as no amount of newspapers would have saved me that night. My sense of humour eventually returned as we huddled together around a fireplace in the tiny kitchen. Charl made us some hot soup – the best packet soup I’ve ever had. Later that evening, the owners of the cottage gave us a hearty home cooked meal and we went to bed early, leaving most of our gear to dry off by the fire.
WHEN THE TOUGH GETS HARDCORE
DAY 6 – DIE HEL TO Kruisrivier campsite 80km
Our final day started rainless and after a quick breakfast we left early, as this would be the toughest day of the entire tour! All those hills had to be conquered back to Swartberg Pass. We then had to cycle back up and over Swartberg Pass, stopping for lunch at Kobus se Gat and finishing back at the Kruisrivier campsite. The total distance for the day would be 80km with 2027 m of elevation gain.
We started climbing right off the bat and the group split up quite early as we each dealt with hell in our own way! Most of the day we cycled within viewing distance of each other but there were times that I didn’t see anyone. It was really amazing to feel almost all alone in that beautiful part of the world.
There was rather a lot of walking done that day. Some of the terrain just could not be cycled as it was too rough and technical. Rain started within the first hour of riding and the soil was saturated quickly, slowing the bikes down and slathering us and our bikes in mud. The rain was intermittent and temperatures hovered between 6°C and 8°C, but with all the climbing we didn’t get as cold as on the previous day.
Eventually we got out of Hell and back to Swartberg Pass. I was so happy for a smooth road surface and excitedly started climbing the rest of the pass, imagining the warm roosterkoek and bowl of soup at Kobus the Gat, which would be our next stop.
But: we all had to contend with the descent down Swartberg Pass, which had been transformed into a muddy mess after all the rain, and with a descent of over 5 km, the arctic freeze got hold of us again! Since the group had become so split up, we all have our own versions of our Swartberg Pass descent.
My version: bakkies with trailers slipping and sliding towards me when I had no safe road/verge as refuge; eating mud; sliding on mud with a loaded bike; being sprayed with mud by passing cars, and wondering if my fingers were actually on the brakes as I could not feel them anymore.
LUCKILY I HAD BRAKES….
3 riders from our group had the unfortunate problem of actually losing brakes on that descent – Charl quite literally lost his brake pads. The mud was like a fine grinding paste, wearing pads.
Las made it to Kobus se Gat first. I saw him quite literally sitting inside the fireplace. I ordered my much dreamed of roosterkoek with soup and a beer, and joined him. Soon the rest of the group arrived and we all sat in the fireplace with steaming socks, roosterkoek and shared our Swartberg pass horror stories. It was pelting outside and nobody wanted to cycle the final 27 km stretch back to Kruisrivier. We heard that Swartberg Pass had just been closed for safety reasons and this made us all feel even more accomplished and hard core.
As we got back onto our bikes, the rain finally lifted. The last 27km was a glorious combination of tar and smooth gravel, with a beautiful sunset in the mix. We had been on the bike the whole day and it was the most perfect end to one of the toughest days I’ve ever experienced on a bike.
As we rolled into the almost dark campsite, I was so relieved it was over, but also so happy to have shared this incredible experience with great friends who all looked out for each other and made it happen. More rain, so we rounded off our adventure with yet another ablution block stoep party, happy to have survived our trip to Hell and Back. Perhaps we’ll do this ride again – in 4 years’ time!
MUST KNOW & TRAIL NOTES.
- Skill level. Riding on a mix of tarred and gravel roads. There are some challenging gravel climbs and descents.
- Climate: The Klein Karoo region is known for temperate weather with wet winters (June – August) and glorious, hot summers (Dec-Feb) The autumn and spring months are perfect for cycling – not too hot, not too cold. In winter, snow can be expected on mountain-tops and higher lying inland areas.
- Lodging & Camping: There are a range of accommodation options in the region. See the map for suggestions.
- Water & Food. Take lots of water, especially when cycling through the more remote sections of the route. Food and supplies can be found at various shops and restaurants along the route, but stock up for the longer sections.
- Gear. Take warm clothes for the evenings and sun protection for the day. A loose long sleeve cotton top is a good way to keep the sun off in summer. Temperatures drop abruptly at night and can be cold even during summer.
- Navigation. Take a good printed map showing the area in detail. There is not always mobile reception so you can’t rely on GPS navigation.
- Road Conditions. You will be riding primarily on roads with no bike lanes and car and truck traffic. You should be comfortable riding in some amount of traffic. Please ride responsibly and stay alert. Most of the route is gravel or unpaved, road conditions can vary throughout the year.
One of South Africa’s most iconic rides – The Road to Die Hel follows a challenging 300km route through the Klein Karoo to ‘Die Hel’ (Gamkaskloof) – a hidden valley, deep in the heart of the formidable Swartberg Mountain Range.
5-6 DAYS | ⇔ 305 km | + 5839m | ≡ Tar/ Gravel
A pinch of getting lost, a dusting of danger and dollops of magnificent scenery and good ol’ South African hospitality, made the perfect ingredients for Lynnae’s first bikepacking adventure – a route that took her and friends through some of the most beautiful gravel and tar roads between Franschhoek and Greyton in the Cape.
OVERNIGHT | ⇔ 170 km (loop) | + 2265m | ≡ Tar / Gravel