had emerged before my South India tour. As explained on the South India page,
that tour came up quite suddenly for the reasons explained there. However, from
some point of time now lost to me, South Africa was on the agenda for 2014.
This was my
first overseas motorcycle tour that was not part of a commercial tour
operator’s program. This was a privately organised venture amongst friends.
Most of us have met one another through participation in commercially organised
motorcycle tours overseas.
organisers-in-chief of this tour have been Lesley and David, with whom I’ve
been on the Rajasthan, Turkey and Morocco tours. In the organising of the tour,
they’re referred to affectionately as Vink
& Vink Inc. The tour was solidly based on their inspirational and
Map of South
Here is a
>90% accurate map of our tour route. I might have missed a couple of side
trips, but the map got to the point where one more iota of data split it into
two pages. That got confusing. You can zoom in and out; and change between map
and satellite modes. Click on the four right angles on black line below to enlarge map.
in Pretoria and finished in Cape Town.
of the Tour
Not only did
David and Lesley plan and organise every aspect of the tour, they produced a
very classy day-by-day guide. With their permission I have reproduced their
guide here: South Africa Tour Day-by-Day Guide.
to the Tour
I soon discovered
through early research that South Africa has a fascinating history, key aspects
of which unfolded in areas that we will traverse. That led inevitably to
documenting some of my research, which morphed into a “contextual guide.”
“Contextual?” That might sound a bit obscure!
For previous tours I have prepared a “rough guide” highlighting points of
interest at every stop. The day-by-day guide covered in the previous paragraph,
however, provided this service.
Once I got
involved in researching what we will cover in the tour (as I tend to do in
preparing for my overseas motorcycle tours), I was dumbstruck by the enormity
of historic interest. Was it any more than on previous tours? Probably not. But
there was something intangible about it that grabbed my attention. The
so-called “Great Trek” was likely unique in colonial history. The might and
achievements of the Zulu certainly were; as was the triangle of power struggles
involving the Zulu, the Boers and the British.
So I set
out to capture the historical “context” in which so much of these fascinating
developments evolved. Hence my Contextual Guide to the Tour.
prepared as a bit of a joke intended for the participants of the tour. As noted
above, it’s all privately organised; and we participants are all friends who
have met on Ferris Wheels motorcycle tours. I thought I might share it with you.
Lectures on the
something a bit different. Ahead of the tour, I prepared some lectures on the
them (very roughly and ineptly) on The GreatCourses. The idea was to provide some fairly straight-forward and
digestible introductions to and descriptions of a few key social and historical
aspects of the tour.
they might be useful, especially to my fellow participants; but perhaps also to
aspirants to undertaking tours of South Africa.
lectures can be found and accessed on a page dedicated to my “Not So Great
Commences: Johannesburg and Pretoria
long and expectant lead time, the South African adventure finally commenced. I
was well on the way to the airport by the time the first light of day broke the
gloom of the sky; and a few hours into the first day before walking into the
Sydney terminal to be greeted by six of our group who had moments before
arrived from Melbourne. At the international terminal we became eight –
destined to become eleven by the time we ride out of Pretoria in a couple of
interesting flight from Sydney to Johannesburg. Non-stop. Just shy of fourteen
hours – and all in daylight. We’d already had about five hours of daylight
before we took off; and another four hours after we landed. So 23 hours of
uninterrupted daylight and a nine hour time difference between departure and
arrival points. Fortunately our group includes two pharmacists, so we had sound
counsel to counter inevitable jetlag, customised to suit individual
metabolisms. For some it was red wine, for others it was white.
Two of the
group who had been on safari in Tanzania were waiting to greet us at Jo’burg
and usher us into the waiting vans for the short drive to our suburban
guesthouse in Pretoria.
the group become complete with the arrival of the eleventh member. The focus
was then on the paper work for the bikes, with an inspection of a couple of
them while the remainder were still being serviced and prepared for the morrow.
the judicial capital of South Africa (the place where the highest court
resides). Other cities fulfil roles of legislative and administrative capitals.
Must be the only country that has three capitals. Pretoria is also the
centrepiece in much of the Voortrekkers’ (the Boer farmers of the Great Trek)
ambitions to set up their own independent republics free from the control of
the British Empire. This is celebrated mightily in the national Voortrekker
monument – an art Deco stone and concrete massif that dominates the countryside
from the summit of a hill on the outskirts of the city. Fittingly it is
surrounded by the open pastures of the high veld that was a key lure and goal
of the Voortrekkers.
sculpture-laden gardens, an internal stone mural encircling the huge domed
chamber that constitutes its main body, paintings and an impressively large
embroidery, and a museum stocked with Voortrekker memorabilia and dioramas, the
monument commemorates and celebrates the most significant historic events of
the Voortrekkers. I found it particularly engaging having encountered these
events in my pre-tour research presented in the so-called contextual guide. The
visit was also a pertinent introduction to the days ahead when we’ll “trek”
along many of the routes of the Voortrekkers and visit places where these
task for the day was shopping, including a couple of extra-large Eskies, ice
and vital contents that will fortify and embolden us over the course of the
tour. The contents, of course, will need regular replenishment.
provisioning day in Pretoria, we met the bikes in earnest for the first time.
That was exciting for most. Paul and Viki had been the only players who had
bikes allocated to them when we visited the hire depot the previous day. Paul was
particularly wrapped in his brand new (less than 1km on the odometer) R1200GS.
However, the pre-allocation got amended. No longer did the coveted bike have
Paul’s name on it but had been reallocated to George and Rose. That was
momentarily devastating; and it didn’t assuage Paul’s grief to have George
“complain” about the smell of fresh paint!
That bit of
feigned drama aside, we had lined up in front of us our fleet of sparkling
BMWs: 3 x R1200GS, 1 x F800GS and 3 x F700GS. With the excitement and
anticipation of kids with new toys, we headed out carefully into the Pretoria
traffic and onto the main motorway north across the famed high veld that had
been at the heart of Boer history for so long.
It was a
fairly straight forward ride but none the less engaging to picture the
challenges and obstacles the Voortrekkers would have encountered as they
struggled over this countryside with ox wagons, herds of livestock and the
scores of families that constituted each of the many groups of the Great Trek.
couple of hundred kilometres traversing the high veld heading north, as many of
the Voortrekkers had done, we changed direction and headed east towards the Drakensberg
Mountains. The main groups of Voortrekkers that first headed east across the Drakensberg
did so long before we turned east. However, one group – the Louis Trichardt
group – crossed pretty much where we headed. As we approached the Drakensberg,
the large, long massif of the range loomed larger with each kilometre. It must
have been an awe-inspiring and daunting sight for Trichardt and his followers.
For us, however, it meant some exciting riding was soon to arrive.
for the night was a little short of the high point of the range in the area, so
the enjoyment for the day was the ascent to the hotel, with the anticipation of
the descent to wait.
This is our
first real encounter with the Drakensberg: the Magoebaskloof Pass. The high
veld – as the name implies – is a high plateau of mainly grazing country. Some
parts of the high veld are in the vicinity of 2000m. By the time we reached our destination
yesterday, we were at about 1400m. The pass drops about 450 vertical metres.
It’s considered one of the most scenic passes in the Limpopo province; and it didn’t
disappoint as it wound its way up and down ranges and valleys before it finally
dropped us at the bottom.
provisioning stop was needed to stock up for some self-catering at the Baobab
Ridge Lodge – a safari camp within the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. There
are several such reserves, but they are all part of the greater Kruger Park in
as much as there are no physical boundaries between reserves or between them
and Kruger Park. In fact, the fenceless tract runs from the western edges of these
private reserves through the Kruger Park and into Mozambique.
Not too far
from where we made our provisioning stop, we parked the bikes at an
accommodating hotel at the edges of the private reserves and were transported
into the reserve area and onto our lodge by vehicle. Apart from the more obvious risks of riding a
motorbike through wild animal country, it would have been a very technical ride
(‘technical’ is an often used euphemism in motorbike-speak for extremely
difficult requiring a high level of specific skills!). It was quite a rough,
tricky track for the last several kilometres to the lodge.
The lodge was
quite something: eight separate bungalow/apartments, strategically placed in
relative seclusion from one another over an area of a couple of hectares. This
area is bounded by an electric fence with an electrified grill as an entry
grid. A central building has dining, kitchen, lounge and recreation facilities,
including the compulsory (in South Africa) boma with braai (a BBQ within a
“protecting fence” of logs).
in time for an evening safari drive into the reserve area in open nine seater
4x4 Land Rover busses of sorts.
Animal spotting on safari runs like this is a ‘chance it’ business. It’s always
on the cards that one might not see much beyond an impala or two. Well, our
fortunes turned out better. Over the day and a half we were there and over
three safari runs into the reserve, we managed to see more than we might have
reasonable hoped for. In fact on the first run alone we covered four of the
“big five”. The big five are lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. We
didn’t see any buffalo.
in the crown was the leopard, certainly the most elusive of the big five and
probably of the greater Kruger population. The rangers knew it was in the area
because of a discovery of a warthog carcass in a tree. It was only on our
return after drinks in the wilderness – by then pitch dark that we headed off
the track, such as it was, and bush-bashed through scrub that the leopard was
spotted in the beam of a strong flash light. We manoeuvred close to where it
was secreting itself in bushes. Quite a sight.
On a following
safari run early next morning we met several zebra, elephants in a herd, more
lions, including a pair engaging in the long drawn-out mating procedures. Our
third safari run that evening came across another rare sight: several lions
taking it in turns to finish off a Rhino calf they had evidently killed a
couple of days prior (judging from the obnoxious smell and the effort of the
lions to get the last bits from within the carcass). Meanwhile hyenas and
vultures patiently waited and watched, ever ready to move in once the lions had
Baobab Ridge to
Long Tom Pass
The one and
a half days at the game reserve had been so successful in terms of sights and
so enjoyable, we’d almost forgotten that we were on a motorcycle tour. Not only
were there three safari runs with rare sightings, but a couple of “braais in
the boma.” But it was time to move on.
of today’s ride was to head west back over the Drakensberg onto the high veld
before travelling south and then heading east to cross the Drakensberg again,
but overnighting just over the summit on the eastern side. This involved a
strategically planned circuitous route to get us to our planned destination
taking in two of the more spectacular Drakensberg passes: Robbers’ Pass and
Long Tom Pass.
It wasn’t long out of the Klaserie Game
Reserve before we had ridden across low veld plains to the beginning of the
Drakensberg. The first climb was a steep
and twisting ride along high walls of granite onto a plateau that stretched and
undulated for several kilometres forming a cradle within the folds of peaks and
troughs that constitute the body of the Drakensberg. It would still be some
time before we made the final climb over the spinal ridge before dropping down
onto the high veld.
“cradle phase” we made a few short diversions to visit some of the
topographical marvels such as the Rondwels (a sort of gigantic Three Sisters)
and Bourkes Luck Potholes (a small canyon with steep walls forming a series of
cauldrons). These features were part of the much larger Blyde River canyon –
reputed to be the largest “green canyon” in the world, being covered with
subtropical foliage. Then came the final stage of climbing out of the cradle to
cross over to the high veld by way of Robbers’ Pass. More enjoyable riding
through turns and scenery. After a relatively short run through a couple of
towns on the high veld, we began the climb up Long Tom Pass. We cast aside the
need to keep more of less in a group as our destination was near the top of the
pass, so it was a brisk ‘free ride’ through the evenly twisting turns to about
three quarters of the way up before running into thick fog that barely
disclosed the bike in front with tail and hazard lights blazing.
accommodation was called “Misty Mountain” and with good reason. The plan was to
have a full day of riding the famed “Panorama Route” before returning to Misty
Mountain for a second night. That was thwarted by fog and rain, so we
substituted a four wheel ride to some of the key sights we had planned to
visit. The best were fog bound but some others were low enough to allow
Long Tom Pass to
Mlilwane Sanctuary, Swaziland
Mountain was equally misty the second morning. By the time we were ready to
leave, however, it had cleared at the hotel and surrounding valleys. That meant
a sunny start to descend Long Tom Pass – but not avoiding thick patches of fog
at various sections of the descent.
It wasn’t a
long ride across the low veld before being confronted by the Makhonjwa
Mountains to weave our way up and into. The twisting road had many vantage
points from which to be amazed at the exposed rock formations, the rolling
hills and distant peaks. We were, in fact, riding along a “geotrail” – the
Barberton Greenstone Belt. The rocks in the area included a huge variety of
different types and are some of the oldest well-preserved rocks on Earth,
dating back some three billion years.
It was in
the folds of these mountains that we crossed into the Kingdom of Swaziland,
nestled high in the plateaus and dips of the range. The border crossing was
quick and efficient; and then a roll into a different world. The first twenty
kilometres beyond the border post was a challenging gravel road with steep
gradients to add to the rocky and loose surface.
roads were in quite good order as we passed through several dusty villages. The
houses seemed humble but the school children were all neatly attired in their
uniforms. Our destination was the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. We had special
permission to ride through the park to reach our hill top lodge (no big game
animals; mostly smaller vegetarians). The setting had a history from colonial
times and the main lodge building must have been a stand-out colonial home of
massive proportions for its day. The evening was climaxed by the traditional
laager of seating round the fire while enjoying another typical South African
Sanctuary to Rorke’s Drift
supposed to be an easy ride through Swaziland before crossing back into South
Africa in southern Swaziland. Somehow our corner marking system had a short;
and soon we realised that David and Lesley in the lead vehicle were nowhere to
be seen. Fortunately, we on the bikes (there were eight bikes at this stage) stayed
together. After much consulting of maps and committee-like discussion, we
managed to get ourselves totally confused as to where we were and where we
should be. We couldn’t even successfully follow a kind fire brigade officer who
had offered to lead us out of our confusion to a direct road to the border
crossing. It all had a happy ending. We found the border crossing and David and
Lesley, who, on realising we were irreparably separated, opted to go to the
border crossing on the assumption that we also would opt to do likewise.
then soon into Zululand. In today’s arrangements it’s the province of KwaZulu-Natal. But in times past this was the hub of the Zulu Empire. We had planned a
stop at the Voortrekker monument at the site of the Voortrekker victory over
the Zulu at Blood River. Unfortunately, the minor and poorly marked roads had
us some 30km past where we should have been. We wisely (as it would turn out)
decided to push on to Rorke’s Drift. We had a long trek along gravel roads
before getting there as lightning was intermittingly flashing across the sky
and large drops of rain were softly falling. I assumed that so long as I could
still see dust spraying from the back tyre of the bike in front, the rain was
of no consequence.
at our hotel, situated only a couple of hundred metres further along the
Buffalo River from the site of the original Rorke’s Drift (a ‘drift’ is a ford
in our speak: a place where the river banks had been cut away for access and
the bottom of the river was passable by the oxen wagons). Rorke’s Drift (the
name was also used for the small trading and mission station 600m or so from
the drift itself) was the site of a much vaunted successful defence by a
hundred or so British military and colonial militia against some thousands of
Zulu warriors. The movie Zulu
(Michael Cain’s very first movie) was all about this event. So there we were
standing on the balcony of the hotel looking across the Buffalo River into
Zululand just down from the drift and wondering what the next day would bring
as we toured the battlefields.
and…within about twenty minutes of arriving, we were entertained by the most
thunderous and strobe-lightning storm followed by a torrential downpour the
likes of which would have made our ride in very challenging.
the morning touring the two battlefields here that were part of the Anglo-Zulu
wars. They came about as part of the
British imperial agenda to have control over what would become South Africa.
started with a British invasion of Zululand at Rorke’s Drift. The column of
British forces proceeded on the first day of the invasion to, in their view, a
perfect camp site at the base of a Sphinx-like hill called Isandlwana. If
you’re really keen you can read lots about it here. In short, through a
combination of being out-manoeuvred by the Zulu and exhibiting an unusual
display of military ineptitude, Isandlwana became the biggest defeat of a
British army by an indigenous force. While the main part of the British force
were being led astray by Zulu decoys, the Zulu overran the camp and slaughtered
those defending it.
The cairns of white stones mark spots where bones from the bodies of British and colonial trops were found months later. They were simply covered with stones.
same day, late in the afternoon, a contingent of Zulu forces crossed the
Buffalo River into Natal and attacked the British garrison at the small mission
outpost at Rorke’s Drift. The garrison had little warning, but hastily erected
some barricades around the two buildings they had requisitioned from the
mission. The outcome was that just over 150 British and colonial troops held
off some 4000 Zulu through over 10 hours of fierce fighting, much of it hand to
hand. Eleven Victoria Crosses were handed out to the defenders.
original buildings were destroyed but replacements were subsequently built in
the same places so the layout of the Rorke’s Drift mission statement looks
similar to how it would have looked at the time of the battle.
We had a
very engaging guide who brought to life the details of both battles. It was
quite an experience to be there and “see” events unfold in the very places
where they happened.
afternoon ride brought us to Nottingham Road (the name of the town) for the
to Sani Pass, Lesotho
Pass was very much our focus, there was one important stop before we got there:
the Mandela Nelson Capture Site (and memorial). This commemorates the life and
achievements of Mandela highlighting the event that took place on the road in
front of the memorial. Nelson Mandela had been a wanted man for several years
as an organiser of resistance against the apartheid regime. Eventually he was
captured when a car full of apartheid police pulled over a vehicle with Mandela
in it. This was the beginning of his 27 years of imprisonment. The feature of
the site is a sculpture that from a distance looks like a random grouping of
upright black iron posts. As you move to a certain perspective, the image of
Mandela appears. Quite surreal.
Then it was
on to Underberg, a small town sitting at the approaches to the Drakensberg.
Thelma, one of our South African members, has a sister there who runs a B &
B. That became our base to launch onto Sani Pass.
It was another
international border crossing today, this time into Lesotho, nestled in the
high plateaus of the Drakensberg Mountains. The route into Lesotho is Sani
Pass, a formidable pass with a fearsome reputation. The owner of the hotel in
Nottingham Road, in trying to be encouraging, succeeded in putting the fear of
God into some of us, including me. We might have still retained our resolve
were it not for the bleak and damp weather. Ray, who had just completed a ride
from London to Magadan on Russia’s east coast, and Greg, an accomplished
off-road rider, were not to be deterred.
So the team
set off: two on bikes and the rest in 4x4 that the Sani Hotel had arranged. We
had been told by many that the first 20km or so to the South African border
post was fine; and it was only the final 7km to the top that was the worry.
Well, we would-be or would-have-been riders didn’t share that assessment as we
bumped our way along the wet, rocky and slippery-looking track to the South
African border post.
there that Ray and Greg were already ensconced in the hotel bar at the top of
section, the greatest part of the climb, more than confirmed the wisdom of
being in the 4x4s. The final section is notorious because of its 9 very tight
and frighteningly steep switch-backs that land you on an incongruously flat
plain that’s Lesotho. The Lesotho border
post was no more than a beat-up old caravan that had obviously taken a roll –
probably on its way up the pass years ago.
boasts being the highest pub in Africa at 2,784m (that’s about 500m or so
higher that the absolute highest point in Australia). The view is supposedly
spectacular, but all we could see was fog, thick fog. There was much re-telling of the experience
of riding up by Ray and Greg as we enjoyed a warm evening in the cosy hotel
before wandering in the dark to our dongas dotted on the nearby plains.
later that the hotel is in South Africa but the dongas are in Lesotho!
We woke to
a fairly clear sky with patches of fog in the valley. It was a wonder-view of
the pass creeping its way from the distant fog through the twists and turns to
the top. On the way down in the 4x4s the road looked relatively benign in
contrast to the day before. But not all that inviting. I had some regrets but
only fleetingly until reality and common sense took hold again.
from Sani Pass, it was back to the B&B to collect the bikes and head out
for Golden Gate National Park. We back-tracked for a while retracing our route
from the previous day through low veld countryside that witnessed significant
events of the Anglo-Zulu wars and the Anglo-Boer wars. Our objective was to head
back into the Drakensberg via Van Reenan’s Pass north of Sani Pass and north of
Lesotho. This was the area of the Drakensberg that the Voortrekkers crossed
when Piet Retief and his followers first ventured into the land of the Zulu –
an event that triggered the tensions and animosity that led eventually to
massacres of Voortrekkers, Zulus and British. Van Reenan’s Pass, however,
post-dated the Voortrekkers and was a product of the Anglo-Boers wars.
up Van Reenan’s Pass might have been spectacular – it’s reputed to be – but for
us it was trying to keep an eye on the hazard lights of the bike ahead the fog
was so thick and the rain, which had been with us most of the day, was still
tagging along. As we rode over the lip of the pass onto the high plateau of the
Drakensberg range, almost miraculously the sky cleared to reveal a vast vista
of rolling high veld plains rimmed by sharp jagged peaks of rock. This was the
cradle of the Drakensberg.
long before some light rain followed us into the Golden Gate National Park.
This was an expanse of high veld country that was dotted with a variety of
massive rock formations that seemed to change shape with every turn of the road
as it wound its way through the park. The ride to the chalet was so good in
terms of both scenery and motorcycling, there was a plan hatched to re-ride it
next morning before continuing on our way. That got thwarted by a night of
constantly teeming rain. Fortunately, by departure time the rain has retreated
to a drizzle.
It was to
be another foray into Lesotho today. The first one at the top of Sani Pass had
us only a few metres into the country; but now we would enter at the northern
end and pretty much run through the length of this tiny nation that’s an island
within South Africa.
eased as we headed through South Africa towards the border. The aftermath of
the night’s rain was clearly evident in the mud and puddles along the side of
the road. We knew we had some dirt riding today so were relieved to see less
evidence of rain as we progressed into Lesotho.
crossing was relatively quick and efficient. The change of the surrounds once
into Lesotho was stark. The settlements and their markets along the road were
bustling but shabby compared to what we had so far seen in South Africa. Soon
we turned off the main road to head for Malealea Lodge for our night’s
accommodation. The road immediately deteriorated but was sort of bitumen with
hard gravel stretches. Then came full
on dirt up to the “Gates of Paradise” Pass and down the other side to the
lodge. It seemed that we were on top of the world out here. The views of
mountains and valleys stretched almost to infinity.
started excitingly – with no sense of just how “exciting” it would turn out to
be by day’s end. The long stretch of dirt road from Malealea Lodge was a much
longer and steeper climb to Gates of Paradise Pass than we experienced coming
in. We were getting plenty of varied dirt riding; and this run provided some
challenges. It was sort of a consolation prize for not having done Sani pass.
had quite a bit of riding in Lesotho, including a couple of benign police
checks along the way. They seemed more interested in our trip than our riding
legitimacy. Once out of Lesotho, we were into the more open plains of the high
veld heading for its southern perimeter – a vast less fertile area called the
Great Karoo. But before we did that we took a small diversion across the Orange
River into what today is the Free State Province of South Africa, but in its
past housed the significant Boer republic of the Orange Free State.
destination was Kareedal farm, an expanse of some 1,100 hectares that runs as a
hunting lodge for mainly deer species, wildebeest and warthogs. The ride in was
about 7km of none too smooth gravel road, including a wide section of uneven
rock face. Some 10km from the main lodge is a small hunters’ hut perched high
on a ridge and overlooking miles of undulating veld. A foreshadowed highlight
for us was a bakkie ride to the hut for “sundowners”. (A “bakkie” is the South
African version of a ute for us, although in this case the back had waist-high
bars down each side.) Six of us could sleep in the hunters’ hut as a special treat.
I was one of them.
We all piled into the back of two bakkies, with the indomitable Greg riding up for
the night. Sundowners were enjoyed with the mesmerising view of part of what
had been fought over all those years past. A couple of stray giraffe and a herd
of wildebeest could be seen in the distance ambling along the never-ending
plains. We all went back down to the lodge for dinner before the six of us
returned to the hut in the bakkies. About half way up, the rain started, got
heavier and heavier before transforming itself into hail. By this time we were
thoroughly drenched, squatting down to avoid the full force of the storm, with
one hand desperately trying to stave off the hail from our heads and the other
firmly on the rails as the bakkie bucked its way up the ridge. The only sounds
that could be heard were the grinding of the complaining engine and our
uncontrolable laughter. But worse was to come when we discovered several leaks
in the thatched roof of the hut, some of them right over beds, making them
unusable. We managed to move some beds to dry spots but had to abandon one of
them. Getting priorities right, we got a fire started, opened a couple of
bottles of soothing red wine; and then found some dry clothes.
It seemed a
long night, followed by a long ride out from the lodge in persisting rain, with
flowing drains and mud-lined puddles creating a very different road than the
one we came in on the day before.
slow and precarious ride out of the farm in rain, mud and lots of water on a
slippery dirt road, we headed back over the Orange River to continue our way
south. Not far into the ride the countryside evolved into the Great Karoo. This
is a large semi-desert tract that had been a formidable barrier for the
Voortrekkers heading north to the more fertile high veld. The most notable
characteristics of what we saw of the Great Karoo were the high ranges that
criss-crossed expansive, dry and barren rolling plains.
sleepy town of Graaf Reinet, our lodgings for two nights, is the fourth oldest
European town in the country. It was established in 1786 by the very early
“Trekboers” predecessors of the Voortrekkers, who first started the push to get
out from under colonial rule. It was one of two early-declared Boer republics
set up while Holland and Britain were jostling for control over the Cape
Colony. It didn’t last long as such.
excursion was a ride to the “Valley of Desolation” a short distance south of
the town. The valley has been described as a cathedral of mountains, with its
high vertical peaks of seemingly precariously balanced rocks. It’s a stark
illustration of the layered nature of rock formations created by banks of sand
and clay over 200 million years ago. The high vantage points surrounding the
valley provided views of Graaf Reinet as well as the valley itself.
Graaf Reinet to
It was a
long, brisk and mostly straight ride for the first part of the day from Graaf
Reinet to our next destination of Storms River Mouth. We had a few hours of
crossing the Great Karoo whose topography continued to be mildly rolling,
fairly barren plains; stark mountains in the far distance; and ranges to climb
and crossover as we traversed this unforgiving expanse. The speed limit is
posted as 120kph; but the local customary limits seem to be 130-140kph.
end of the Karoo, low, thick, green vegetation took over the terrain until the
foothills of a mountain range totally blocked our path. We changed direction
from south to east as we ran along the edges before a pass took us over the
mountains onto the coastal strip: lush, thickly forested and sea-breezed. We
were soon looking at the Indian Ocean along South Africa’s south coast. The dry
heat of the Karoo was replaced by the pleasant chill of ocean winds. Along the
southern foothills of the Tsitsikamma Mountains, as we rode west, several
rivers, whose sources are in those mountains, have cut through deep ravines to
their mouths along the coast. High, single-span (under the road) bridges have
replaced what must have been tortuous roads to get down and back up these many
national park chalets at Storms River Mouth were perched on a headland
overlooking the beach, sea and river mouth, with the rugged edges of the
coastal cliffs fading long into the distance. A somewhat strenuous walk up and
along a ridge overlooking the river led us to suspension bridges that
facilitate access for the keen bush walkers.
morning, it was riding further east over more ravines before changing direct
into the Outeniekwa Mountains for a night’s stay in their southern foothills
early into Robinson’s Pass. (There is a series of interlocking mountain ranges
all along the hinterland of the south coast that get called different names
every so many kms!)
and Swartberg Pass
well have been the best riding day of
the tour. It started with Robinson’s Pass. We had stayed overnight at the foot
of the pass. It connects Mossel Bay on the coast with Oudtshoorn over the
Outeniqua Mountains in the Little Karoo. The pass is noted for its sweeping
curves and superb views of rugged mountains and open valleys. Getting the
curves in sync meant a most delightful run all the way to the top and over. The
pass brought us down into the Little Karoo, with the Great Swartberg range
clearly visible in the distance. We then crossed the relatively narrow Little
Karoo before heading into the foothills of the Swartberg Range. Then came
Schoemanspoort (a ‘poort’ is a narrow chasm). It provided tightly cornered feeder
route to the fabulous Swartberg Pass.
of the day was Swartberg Pass. It’s been described as the rubicon of gravel
road passes. A website on South African mountain passes says “there is an
allure and mystique around this old pass, coupled with its status as a national
monument, which elevates this pass to the very top of the list.” It was all
gravel! It had tight switchbacks, steep inclines, rough rocky surface in parts:
challenging but not to the point where it became unenjoyable. Several vantage
points provided amazing views of the range, the pass and the valleys of the
lunching in the quaint, arty town of Prince Albert, we continued with a loop
back to Oudtshoorn for our accommodation. But another gem still waited us. The Meiringspoort
is described as a top 10 destination. This poort is incredible. Its wall are
towering high, it’s very narrow for most of it, there are innumerable drifts
(fords - but concreted) and a gushing waterfall along the way. It has a history
of floods, landslides; and one can only marvel at the engineering feat of the
It was a
tiring but energising day to have accomplished so much and experienced such a
variety of riding.
By now, that
awful “the end is near” feeling has started to take hold. Montagu will be our
last stopover before we arrive in Cape Town.
For a good
part of the day we travelled the panoramic Route 62 which runs lengthwise
through the Little Karoo. Three of us (the indomitable Ray and Greg, who did
Sani Pass, and me) opted for a side trip through the Seweweekspoort. (The
‘poort’ part is a chasm; the rest is a more challenging way of saying “seven
Weeks Poort” is a gravel road that winds its way through a narrow chasm between
high, jagged rock cliffs walls. It’s considered by many to be the most
spectacular poort in the country. The trio’s joint view was that it outdid the
Meiringspoort that we rode the day before. It was a case of riding about 17km
through the chasm and then riding back through it again to re-join Route 62.
The rest of
the team had moved about 70km on for an extended rest stop at “Ronnie’s Sex
Shop” – a stand-out establishment surrounded only by miles of the stark
landscape of the Little Karoo. The story goes that it was called “Ronnie’s
Shop” until he sold it. It had by then had such a name as a roadhouse that the
new owner inserted an “ex” between Ronnie and Shop! Some wag then wrote in an
S. Maybe the story is local mythology, but it works!
from Route 62 took us up and over Tradouw Pass, another great ride of twists,
climbs and descents, before we rode through the old town of Swellendam. That
caught my attention. Swellendam and Graaf Reinet, where we were just a few days
ago, were the two towns that became the first Boer republics, long before the
Voortrekkers had set up the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. They were
declared as such by the early settlers – the Trekboers. This happened in 1795,
the year the British first occupied the colony in the aftermath of Holland
being over-run by Napoleon. Their
Independence didn’t last long. The new colonial occupiers saw to that! Their
claim to fame on that basis seems to get overlooked.
road to Montagu through the Cogmanskloof Pass, along which was a natural
gateway of a rock arch on top of which are the remnants of a British fort from
the second Anglo-Boer War (known to us as simply the Boer War). Montagu is
snuggled between mountain ranges but supports an extensive wine-vine growing industry.
Once again, a guest house that would compete with any 5 star resort.
Montagu to Cape
last day of the ride to Cape Town arrived. However, we have four days in Cape
Town that will include day rides.
Montagu after early morning rain that seemed to have cleared. So no wet weather
gear. It wasn’t far into the ride before the rain started to persist. So a stop
for wet weather gear. It wasn’t long after that that the rain dispersed for the
rest of the day. Donning wet weather gear is supposed to be on the balance of
probabilities. Strange that it seems the balance always tilts in one direction!
As is our
wont, we made a couple of diversions to ride a passes that weren’t on the main
roads. Du Toitskloof Pass provided an amazing vista of a fertile valley the
likes of which we hadn’t seen throughout the tour. This was the Paarl Valley,
renowned for its production of many of South Africa’s premium wines.
the Bainskloof Pass. This was a narrow road with a spectacular climb up the
side of the range, but today was savaged by a fierce wind that almost stopped
the bike in its tracks at every corner.
The plan was to climb the pass and then return back down. In the
circumstances, we called the climb off about two thirds of the way up.
entered an entirely different terrain as we passed through vast hectares of
wheat growing areas and general farming. We were now north of Cape Town
traversing the fertile lands that had immediately attracted the first colonial
settlers and where they first came into contact with the indigenous Khoikhoi.
the day, riding south along the Atlantic coast, Table Mountain began to grow
larger in our view heralding the imminence of Cape Town. We circuited the city
part of Cape Town and headed south on the peninsula that leads to the Cape of
Good Hope. Along this route is a small township or suburb called St James. It’s
noted for its mansions reflecting an era and life-style long past. Our “Villa
St James” mansion echoes an opulent and high-society way of living and
entertaining that has now become part of the history of the former colony.
relieved that we completed some 5,000km over three weeks without a fall-off,
dropped bike or any serious incident.
I feel very comforted at having done so much gravel/dirt riding (some optional)
that has significantly increased both my breadth of experience and confidence.
Round Cape Town
We kept the
longest ride day (in terms of hours) for Cape Town. From our Villa near the top
of the peninsular whose southern tip is the Cape of Good Hope, we set out
north/north east along the shores of False Bay. The terrain varied from sea
level beach fronts to coastal roads climbing up and over the rugged, high
promontories that protruded into the Atlantic Ocean. Soon enough it was over
another mountain Pass into the lush valleys that house the very first satellite
settlements out of Cape Town itself. These were Stellenbosch, Paarl and
Franshoek. Franshoek Pass brought us
first to the town of Franshoek with its gleaming white buildings exhibiting the
unique designs of its long history. These valleys are now South Africa’s
premier wine growing areas; and there are long-established wineries throughout
the valleys. As a postscript, it was from these first settlements that the
Trekboers, the predecessors of the later Great Trek, set out north and east to
escape the Dutch East India Company’s restrictions on their freedom of trading
Some of us
diverted on the ride back to Cape Town to ride the mountain-clinging road to
Chapman’s Peak providing not only a great twisting ride but also a spectacular
view of Hout Bay with the southern profile of Table Mountain forming the
Cape of Good Hope
The lure of
the cape! Between mythology (the Flying Dutchman) and history (from Bartholomeu
Dias and Vasco da Gama), the Cape of Good Hope is a fable in itself. It’s
essentially the tip of the peninsula that runs down the western side of the
South African coast. There are, in fact, three promontories that one might
loosely lump together as the fabled cape; but only one of them is officially
the Cape of Good Hope. It’s the first one a seafarer would spot coming from the
west. Far more spectacular is Cape Point which far more captivated the
imagination and consternation of the early seafarers.
It was a
Portuguese seafarer Dias in 1479 that sailed further down the west coast of
Africa than anyone else had recorded. Battling stormy conditions he
“discovered” the bottom of the African continent and confirmed that the coast
line then trended northeast. The way round Africa was established. He called
the cape the Cape of Storms: but King John II of Portugal realising the
implications of finding a passage to India, called it the Cape of Good Hope. I
suspect at this stage the various promontories had not been distinguished from
one another. The “cape” was simply the end of the peninsula that was considered
the bottom of Africa. While it’s the most south western point of the continent,
it’s not the most southerly. Vasco da Gama followed soon after and established
the trading route with India and founded a Portuguese settlement in Southern
Three of us
(two bikes) set out to ride the cape. It was a very scenic ride along the
eastern edge of the peninsula, with the road winding its way into and over the
coastal ranges before coming across an expansive plateau leading to the
peninsula’s end point: the cape. Cape Point is a high, narrow rocky strip that
juts into the sea providing a panoramic view of both sides of the peninsula. On
its eastern side, the view extends north to the start of the peninsula and the
coast of False Bay stretching further east.
actual Cape of Good Hope may be less scenically dramatic, it still had the
principal lure. A compulsory photo stop!
days at the Villa St James provided opportunity for extra socialising. Our tour
organisers, David and Lesley, ‘christened’ as Vink & Vink Inc, invited some
local friends from times past. We had a dinner party for 24 – and a dining room
and table to easily cope, such is the grandeur of the mansio. Norm and Diane,
who rode with us for part of the tour presented each of us with a tin mug with
name and tour embossed onto them. The tin mug has more symbolism that one might
think. It’s a continuing tradition in South Africa that combines memories of
the early trekkers and captures a contemporary way of life in the local
settlements. Thanks Norm and Diane.
these days was devoted to the god Dionysus. We had a very comfortable 14 seater
mini-coach take us on a winery tour. The vast majority of South Africa’s wines – and they are highly regarded – come from
lush, fertile valleys centred on the nearby towns of Stellenbosch, Franschoek
and Paarl. These are the first settlements set up by the colonists after Cape
Town itself. They date back to 1678-1688; and the first wineries followed soon
after. The wineries are referred to as farms. One of the farms recorded its
beginning in 1699. Many of its buildings and wine storage tanks (no stainless
steel) seem to have come from not long after that.
sessions of wine-tasting at a couple of long-established farms, we were treated
to a great lunch with, of course, more wine. We learned a lot about the
intricacies of or grape-growing to vary alcohol content, management of wine
tastes and alcohol content and wine-making generally.
finished with dinner at the nearby Brass Bell at Kalk Bay. The restaurant sits
right on the water’s edge and has a bar door onto the railway station.
riding day inevitably turned up. Our sole remaining task was to deliver the
bikes to the hiring company depot in downtown Cape Town, located fortuitously
right beside the waterside precinct that is the main tourist and city
attraction. We had two choices to get there: straight north along the motorway
or south before crossing the coastal mountains and winding our way back north along
the cliff faces. It wasn’t a difficult decision and a rewarding final 50km of
Then it was
exploration of the waterside precinct – a marvel of upmarket shopping –
followed by lunch with Paul and Viki. My aim was to visit “District 6” or, at
least, a museum of the same name that presents the story of District 6; and in
doing so lays bare much of the tragedy of apartheid. What came to be called
District 6 was, in the 18th century, some farm land just beyond the
outer limits of the Cape Town settlement. Over years it grew with squatters,
then houses and streets etc. Its inhabitants were an eclectic mix of peoples of
most races. Despite being sorely neglected by governments, especially under
apartheid, it developed a unique identity and vibrancy. It was house, home and
workplace to hundreds of people. Until 1966. That’s when the apartheid regime
rezoned District 6 for whites only, forcibly moving the inhabitants further out
to the Cape plains and demolishing much of their hard-earned and cherished
housing, community places and work places. The museum highlights the stories of
many individuals and families who could trace their ancestry and land titles
back several generations of living and owning in District 6; and who were
simply thrown out with no compensation and no immediate means of living.
Post-apartheid and after much lobbying by former residents, some restitution
has been made and some have been able to return.
It was only
some hours later on the train back to our digs at St James that I pondered on the links between the story of District 6
and the recent movie “District 9.” The satire on apartheid had always been
evident in the movie but the parallels with District 6 had eluded me; but they
have now become so obvious; and added a new dimension to the movie.
It’s been a
great tour: the Vink & Vink South Africa Tour 2014.
It has been
a tour with everything: top class accommodation in uniquely South African villas,
guest houses and B&Bs;
BMW motorbikes well suited to the tasks demanded of them; spectacular scenery
of high-peaked mountains, wide expansive plains, rugged coastlines,
white-sanded beaches, lush forests and ancient wineries of top order; exposure
to a history that exhibits the best and worst of human endeavours and responses
– admirable, tragic, absorbing, fascinating; a mix of riding unimaginable of tightly
winding mountain passes and “poorts” (chasms), sweeping turns across and through more open terrain,
dirt and gravel roads of varying conditions and terrain in a mix of weather;
and a productive safari beyond expectation that included some specials that
most visitors would not get to see: a leopard, lions mating, several lions
devouring a rhino calf they had recently caught and large herds of elephant
with babies in tow.
finale came upon us, my mind was taken back to the closing ceremony of the 2000
Sydney Olympics, when not only the crowd in attendance but the whole country
waited for (IOC president) Samaranch to declare them “the best Olympic Games
ever.'' I think we all mentally echoed Samaranch’s sentiment as we appraised
the Vink & Vink Inc South Africa Tour 2014.
A Few Movie Clips
Here are a few short video clips from the tour:
A Couple of Dirt
prepared two slide shows on the tour. The first is a generic one of photos covering
the whole tour. The second is a smaller selection of photos from our three
safari ventures at Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. After clicking on the arrow, select full screen.
Slide Show of Tour: