Spending seven hours a day on a mountainbike, riding across the rugged landscape of South Africa created an epic adventure full of pleasure and pain for photographer Murray Wilson.
As Richard, our support vehicle driver came careering down the dusty track I knew something was wrong. Seeing my friend Bryn reclined in the front seat covered in blood my worst fears were confirmed. He had catapulted over his handlebars and hit the gravel road head first at 55kmh, splitting his helmet in two, and opening up the left side of his face, shoulder and back. Luckily we had a doctor riding with us, so we rushed him back to our accommodation where he was checked for concussion, given a few stitches and applied bandages to the open wounds. Unbelievably he had no broken bones, but was in a lot of pain.
Courageously, the next day he was back on his bike, albeit very sore, but determined to finish what we had started. That was the only moment when I thought our trip was in serious doubt. This had happened halfway through our eight-day epic mountainbike ride, which started from my friend’s farm, 86km northeast of Beaufort West in The Great Karoo, South Africa.
Riding through arid flat landscape, we climbed three mountain passes, and crossed the fertile plains of the Western Cape, ending in Stellenbosch, 674 km later. Our group consisted of Andre, the doctor, who was the comedian in the group, and very handy at stitching up open wounds. Dirk, the anaesthetist whose skills weren’t required, even though after pedalling for seven hours our bodies could have done with some pain numbing. Richard was the support vehicle driver and his knowledge invaluable. I am convinced that if it wasn’t for him, and his can of spray paint to mark which track to take, we would still be riding in circles around the ‘veld’.
There were also brothers Greg and Bryn, both directors at Coca-Cola. Craig, Greg’s son, the chartered accountant also came along and settled all the bills along the way – he was also the only person aged under 50. And me, the Kiwi from Palmerston North with a camera.
We woke early on the first day to a beautiful Karoo sunrise, made coffee and sat on the veranda and listened to the ‘coo-coo-roo’ of the turtle doves welcoming in a new day, the only sound breaking the silence. Breakfast consisted of a hearty bowl of porridge and homemade bread, then we took a few photos, which pushed our leaving time of 8am out by at least an hour. Then we set off, with a surge of adrenaline and excitement, our minds filled with the possibilities of adventure.
The Karoo veld, an Afrikaans term for flat open country, is such a sparse and mesmerising landscape, like a vast burned canvas, its skin cracked and dry under the scorching sun. Ahead of us lay an infinite horizon, distorted by the shimmering heat. As we rode, the nostalgic scent of Karoo bush transported me back to fond childhood memories spent in these hills and valleys, never dreaming that one day I would be doing this bold and somewhat risky undertaking.
We arrived late afternoon, 100km later at Rietbron, a town in the middle of nowhere. Dusty, dry and desolate with only 40 permanent residents. It was like a scene directly ripped from Mad Max, with many old homes abandoned, and falling into disrepair. As the sun came to rest on the horizon, a truck sped through the main street, silhouetting a stray dog against a backdrop painted with vibrant crimson tones. Sunsets in the Karoo have an ethereal beauty.
Our accommodation was the Karoo Hof Guest House, which used to be the old police station and courthouse. It had a wonderful homely feel, but I’m sure my 3am trip to the toilet across creaky wooden floorboards must have woken the entire neighbourhood. After washing our bikes we realised the cold beers were still in the fridge at “Hillside” Farm. So a quick phone call from our host and 10 minutes later there was a crate of Castle Lager being unloaded from the back of a “Bakkie”.
The next day was daunting. We had to cover 131km to get Prince Albert, at the foothills of the Swartberg Ranges. Prince Albert was a British garrison during the Boer War. The village is filled with beautifully preserved Cape Dutch and Victorian buildings. It was a tough day as the temperature climbed to 38 degrees C. The air was thick and the early stages of saddle sores were emerging.
Riding through beautiful, but parched scenery, with wide open spaces, a layer of dust soon covered our skin. Windmills stood like sentinels piercing the blue sky, shuddering and creaking a rusted tune. The searing heat soon sapped our energy, so we decided to have breaks every 20km to refill water bottles and chug down an ice cold soft drink.
The payoff was that we saw a lot of wild game on the way, including eland, kudu, zebra, springbok and steenbok, not to mention the many tortoises on the road. I am always amazed how these pre-historic looking reptiles survive in this unforgiving environment, many living to be over 100 years old. We arrived in Prince Albert after 7½ hours in the saddle as dusk was falling.
We were staying at a lodge in Bushmans Valley, which was another 3km from Prince Albert, in the foothills of the mighty Swartberg. We were shattered. It seemed the longest 3km I have ever ridden, but well worth the effort, although the local baboons were having a family domestic, as we were woken by high-pitched screeching in the early hours. It was so loud I thought they had climbed through the window into the lodge.
If the day before was hard, today was the big one. Up at 6am, music on for motivation. We had to summit the Swartberg Pass. Slicing through the mountain range, dividing the arid plains of the great Karoo with the green plains of the Little Karoo. It obviously had a turbulent past, as there were quartzite rock formations that had bent and folded under extreme pressure.
It was an imposing gravel pass, built with convict labour over a period of seven years, and opened in 1888. Filled with zig-zag bends and a 3½-hour unrelenting climb the views and scenery were breathtaking as we rose out of the shadowed gorge. There wasn’t a lot of talking on the way up, just a bit of swearing, and finding that mental “zone” where the legs take on a life of their own and you focus your mind no further than five metres ahead.
By now it felt as if my bike seat had morphed into a cheese grater, no amount of chafing cream would change it back to the comfort I felt on day one. Reaching the top we were greeted with a howling gale that we could barely stand up in. Quickly taking in the view and what we had achieved we dropped down to shelter for a breather and celebrated ‘Knocking the bastard off’.
As in most of our stops, we focused on refuelling and getting energy levels up. We drank copious amounts of Coke, and the odd chocolate milk, as this seemed to have an instant effect, physically and psychologically. The descent was just as difficult as the track was potholed and loose with gravel and stones, and the occasional gust of wind nearly sent us over the edge. It became a controlled and focused ride down.
When the stifling heat was at its peak we found a creek for our first swim of the trip. Dumping our bikes, we shed our clothes, which by now were taking on a life of their own, and jumped in. I’m sure it sounded the same as when you dip red-hot steel into a vat of ice cold water.
Arriving at our next stop, Calitzdorp, at 5.30pm, we stayed at “The Queen of Calitzdorp”. Run by a German woman who thought we were mad attempting the ride. That day we rode 86km, but had climbed more than 1000 metres, and had been in the saddle for 5½ hours.
Motivation was ebbing the next day. It was a clear day, 30 degrees-plus and our bodies were tired.It was going to be another challenging day to get across the rugged, 600-metre Rooiberg Pass (Afrikaans for Red Mountain). It was the second of our three passes in as many days, filled with sheer drops and serpentine twists and turns. We were warned this was not for the faint hearted, and was going to be hard on the lungs, legs – and the rest of our bodies.
We were treated to stunning views of the valley and ravines below, the diverse vegetation transitioning from Karoo scrub to Mountain Fynbos. This was the day that Bryn had his crash, so we were all shaken up and exhausted.
We were relieved to see our beautiful guest cottages, Onder Die Milkibar, nestled in the Rooiberg Mountains, about 3km out of Vanwyksdorp. We were greeted by the friendly Estelle, who made us feel quite at home at her ‘off the grid’ farm.By day five the hours spent in the saddle were starting to pay off, and I was feeling a lot fitter. Bryn was not so lucky. He was feeling incredibly sore after his nasty crash, so we adjusted our pace and rode together with the Garcia Pass ahead of us.
There was a steep downhill descend into Riversdale, the landscape changing drastically after the pass. There were green fields, tractors and lots of dairy cows. It reminded me a lot of home. I was already missing the sweeping landscapes of the vast Karoo, with its blue skies and simply enjoying the beauty of nothingness.
The following day was incredibly hot, there was a head wind. It was the tipping point on the ride. This is where it went from a physical to a mental game. We were tired, sore and the long days were starting to take their toll. But, I found with such long days in the saddle you get into a meditative state where the mind, body and bike become synchronised, clicking through the gears to find the perfect cadence to tackle the next hill or valley.
So many times the top of a big mountain climb was just an illusion, tricking the mind into believing the worst was over, only to see a steeper hill ahead. The upside was that we found a great place to stop for lunch by a river, perfect for a refreshing swim before refuelling on chicken kebabs and baked beans.
We arrived at Swellendam, the third oldest town in South Africa, after clocking up 94km. The town of about 17,000 people situated in the Western Cape province has more than 50 heritage sites, most of them buildings of Cape Dutch architecture. We ended the day having pizza and beer with the mayor of Swellendam, a school friend of battered and bruised Bryn. By this time our frames were starting to wilt from tiredness, and we just wanted to lie down.
Fuelling up on our morning ritual of coffee and a full English breakfast, we loaded up the trailer with our gear and gave the bikes a quick once over before setting off. We looked back with humour to our first day’s riding when we washed the bikes and oiled the chain meticulously. That attention to detail lasted all of one day.
Another 90km ride lay ahead to Greyton, a quaint village nestled in a hollow in the Riviersonderend Mountain range, consisting mostly of dirt roads, but with modern shops and great eateries. Luck was on our side with the weather so far, but today for the first time it rained and got noticeably colder.
The final leg back to Stellenbosch was all tarseal, so we longed for the vast expanse and dusty trails of the Karoo. Arriving back at Greg’s estate, we were all riding in a group basking in our achievement, when suddenly a three-legged stray dog ran out in front of us. We had to take evasive action to avoid getting wiped out. How bizarre that would have been, with only 300 metres to go after travelling more than 650km.
Riding through the gate we were greeted by the stirring sounds of We are the Champions, lots of handshakes, cold beers, and slight disbelief that we had completed such an arduous journey (apart from the 674km we rode, our total elevation gain was 7031 metres, the same as riding up Aoraki/Mt Cook twice). It was an incredible, life-changing experience. We tested our limits – many times – but the days were still filled with interesting conversation, storytelling, history lessons and so so many laughs.
Unbelievably we had no punctures or repairs through the whole trip, except for a couple of broken spokes on Andre’s bike. Living by the mantra that our small time on this planet should be about adventure and discovery, Iv’e always tried to steer clear of the safety and security of the paved highway, preferring the dusty remote tracks which people rarely frequent, the road less travelled.
As adventure race legend Steve Gurney said in his book Eating Dirt, life truly begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
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Article source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/destinations/africa/116231301/saddle-sores-and-spectacular-sights-my-674km-mountainbiking-trek-across-south-africa