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A Bicycle, a Tent and a Toothbrush: Part 1

“Covering roughly 225km from Gordon’s Bay to Barrydale, the first three days were characterised by some intense heat, a dash of wind here and there, wide road shoulders, expansive farmlands and the soothing waters of the Breede River”

14 days of cycling, 1 rest day, 1024km…

Adopting my usual ‘laid back, minimal planning, deal-with-the-problems-as-they-come’ approach to travel (and life in general), I set off from the Animal Welfare Society Helderberg’s kennels in Gordon’s Bay on a blustery Saturday morning. My goal was simple: cycle for 1000km across the Western Cape to raise as much money as possible for two animal welfare organisations, the Animal Welfare Society Helderberg (AWSH) and the Rescued Animal Drive (RAD); and in so doing, encourage the adoption of shelter animals and advocate responsible animal ownership.

After an intense training schedule (a quick ride from Somerset West to Stellenbosch and back, two days before I was supposed to leave), I was raring to go. Having a few years mountain biking experience and having had a bit of experience with short bike trips in New Zealand, I was putting a lot of reliance on muscle memory to get me through.

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Endless Karoo roads

Covering roughly 225km from Gordon’s Bay to Barrydale, the first three days were characterised by some intense heat, a dash of wind here and there, wide road shoulders, expansive farmlands and the soothing waters of the Breede River (made sweeter after the 93km first day). The majestic Langeberg Mountains, a sprinkle of mountain passes (the most enjoyable being the historic Cogmanskloof Pass en route to Montagu and the descent of the Op de Tradouw Pass) challenged and invigorated me as I made my way towards Barrydale. By this stage I was suffering, I had developed an inflamed mouth and throat that made eating quite difficult. Although I had enjoyed most of the ride so far, both me and my rear end were looking forward to a rest day, spending two nights with my friends Rudi and Pam at their home in the quaint little town.

After giving a presentation on basic animal health and welfare at BF Ooosthuizen Primary School in Barrydale the following morning, I set about exploring a little. Of all the country towns along Route 62, Barrydale stands out as my favourite. It is an eclectic mix of people, things to do, and things to see, and the town has definitely made full use of its position along this well-travelled South African road. Barrydale sees its fair share of tourist buses, and iconic local spots such as the Country Pumpkin and the Karoo Art Hotel which are often bustling with foreign accents. This, however, doesn’t seem to take anything away from the town’s charm –but rather adds to the diverse character of the place. The town, the warm hospitality and the cold beer I’d had earlier brought about a sense of contentment. As I fell asleep that night to the welcome absence of traffic noise, I found myself thinking: “This place is pretty cool.”

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The open road

The best choice one can make when cycling across the Karoo in mid-summer is to start early. So, following a hearty breakfast and a reluctant goodbye, that was exactly what I did. After a stiff climb out of the valley, it was onwards into the vast, arid expanses of the Little Karoo. Hot and dry may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is still something undeniably alluring about the seemingly endless open spaces, perhaps made more apparent by being on a bicycle. On first glance (and in a car), the landscape may appear harsh and lifeless, but give it a chance, travel through it more slowly, look again, and you may just be able to appreciate that there’s more than meets the eye.

This was no more apparent than at my following two destinations. Thanks to my hosts in Barrydale, my original plan to pitch my tent had been replaced by the warm promise of a comfortable bed.

The first of these was at The Barn Owl, a character-filled guesthouse nestled in the Buffelsdrift Conservancy, about 15 km outside of Ladismith. If it’s quintessential Karoo farmhouse you’re looking for, with quintessential Karoo hospitality to boot, this is the right place to come. The owners, Carl and Tori, felt like long-lost friends, and their extended family of four-legged creatures made me feel all the more welcome. Along with Fire the horse, Ruby and Lucy the cats, and Myrtle and Elle the dogs (plus a big family of chickens), the conservancy is home to a wide variety of bird (most notably the Barn Owl) and mammal species (as well as reptiles, as Carl’s encounters with puff adders and others illustrated). With the slow-moving Grootrivier running through the valley, the conservancy is equally ideal for a relaxed weekend of reading and ambling, or for a more active time spent swimming and bird watching. I somehow managed to fit both into my short time there, making my weary body all the more grateful for my comfortable bed that night.

After another reluctant and extended goodbye (there were lots of animals to get through), I was on my way to my next destination, another very generous offer of a cottage for the night, at Le Karoux in the Opsoek Valley, courtesy of Mark and Colleen. The overcast conditions made for really pleasant riding, and the scenery along the way helped too. Heading up a winding incline just outside Ladismith, views over the Swartberg Mountains gave just reward for the hard slog.

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Lush Ladismith

Despite felling rather spoilt and undeserving of Mark and Colleen’s generosity, I made sure to enjoy my surroundings, which did not seem to take very much effort at all. Sitting on the verandah of the stone cottage, surrounded by mountainous hues of red and pink with the setting sun, my bicycle and I were in a happy place, slowly being consumed by a blanket of impossibly bright Karoo stars.

After the stay in the Opsoek Valley, the following two days could be neatly summed up in one word: “hot!” I had been warned beforehand about a visit to Oudtshoorn in December, and those warnings, I realised, were very well founded, a fact I wholeheartedly acknowledged while battling through a stiff headwind and temperatures in the lower 40s. Short-term goals included avoiding trying to imagine a glass of cold water, as well as hoping my tires wouldn’t melt.

Needless to say, the quirky campsite at Amber Lagoon (about 30km southwest of Oudtshoorn) was a welcome respite. Accessed by a 7km dirt road off the R62, Amber Lagoon lends itself to the description of an oasis in the desert. As a result, I probably spent more time in the pool than out of it, and the complimentary ice cream and Amarula crêpes (courtesy of the German owners, one of whom was a chef), further convinced me that this was indeed an apt title.

Daybreak saw me heading along the Old Concrete Road towards Mavuradonha Campsite, situated along the banks of the Grootrivier, just outside the one-horse-town of Van Wyksdorp. Although not a particularly challenging day in terms of distance, my chosen route still threw up a fair few challenges, most notably the Rooiberg Pass. Reaching an altitude of around 800m, the pass is a fantastic alternative route through the Gamkaberg, and despite the road not being quite ideal for a carefree descent on a mountain bike, it was definitely worth the effort to avoid a long, flat tar road. Once at the top of the pass, the overall trend is a downhill ride to Van Wyksdorp, although you’ll still have to work hard at the few sizable ‘ups’ that punctuate the way.

Only accessible via a 30km dirt road, Van Wyksdorp is a bit of a novelty in today’s fast-paced world. Predominantly a community of self-sustaining farmers, I felt right at home as I pulled into the only café in town on my self-propelled vehicle. I was then again reminded of small-town hospitality as, after downing two cold drinks in quick succession, I was offered free reign of the owner’s pool (he lived right next door) which I gratefully accepted – a chance to cool down my dusty and sun-burnt self.

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Mavuradonha Campsite, Van Wyksdorp

This hospitality extended further to my stay at Mavuradonha, where I enjoyed a quiet sunset on the grassy banks alongside to the river. The campsite had great facilities, and even a splash pool, so if you ever do make the journey to Van Wyksdorp, and are looking for budget accommodation in a beautiful setting, Mavuradonha comes highly recommended.

Peering out of my tent at 04:30 the following morning, just as a hint of pink touched the horizon, the prospect of the 100km back to Barrydale was one I was looking forward to. I’d be meeting up with Roger and Nicola of the Rescued Animal Drive about 30km outside Barrydale, and I was looking forward to riding with Roger over the proceeding two days. I loaded my supplies (which weren’t much), and continued westward through the Karoo.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Check out the organisations Danny is supporting:
The Karoo is a hospitable place as evidenced in this article. Be sure to talk to the locals, have a drink at the bar. Make sure your plans have enough flexibility to allow you to deviate off the path to enjoy the local company.

Danny Fernandes

Currently in his final stretch of studies in Veterinary Medicine, and with a background in Ecology, Danny Fernandes has a deep love for everything non-manmade (excepts perhaps for books and bicycles). In between studies, he spent nine months working and travelling through Zimbabwe and New Zealand, spending significant amounts of time in National Parks, a tent, and on a mountain bike. Once qualified, he hopes to continue to explore our beautiful planet, ardently pursuing his passion for conservation and animal welfare.

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