In 2006 I did a 7-day self-sustained bicycle tour to Gamkaskloof (also known as “The Hell”). Unlike my previous bicycle trips, I decided to include more gravel and use a Burley Trailer to carry my luggage.
Gamkaskloof is located quite some distance off the beaten track and you really need to WANT to go there…Rather appealing then…
Furthermore, it can only be reached via a single access road, which is gravel and leads off another gem: The Swartberg Pass in the Western Cape. I’ve ridden this before (way back in 1997), so know all about how tough (and spectacular) this climb is. For the uninitiated, here it is:
There are several access options:
- Drive-in: 400km from Cape Town, 1100km from Johannesburg
- Fly-in: 115km from George Airport (a regional airport)
- Train-in: 65km from Prince Alberth Road
I decided to use the last option (overnight train – Shosoloza Meyl) that runs between Johannesburg and Cape Town to get as close as possible, and then to just head in and out again, catching the same train back to Johannesburg.
- Travel mode/s: Train, bicycle (Mountain Bike)
- Total Distance Riding: 260km (161mi)
- Tar|Gravel Ratio: 15%/85%
- Solitary/Group: Solitary
- Breakdowns: None
Here’s a map for orientation:
- Purple pin: Beaufort West
- Red Pin: Prince Albert Road
- Green Pin: Gamkaskloof
Index of Posts
Delivery – A package arrives in the post!
(Friday Afternoon – March 31st 2006)
Whoop-whoop! A package from The States arrived at the office…my Burley bicycle trailer, courtesy of DHL couriers. Cutting it close with a week to go before I set off on my seven-day break.
The bulky package is surprisingly light…will this carry 40kgs of “essential” camp stuff? Not sure the thin nylon/rubber sheet suspended between a flimsy aluminium frame will hold up. Oh well, at least I’ll be within cell phone range most of the time…
There will not be much more work done today – I’m heading home to assemble and test!
Shut-eye Before a Train Ride
(Friday Night, one week later and the day before I leave – 4th of April 2006)
Planned the route and bought all necessary food. Packing is almost done (toiletries to go into the bag tomorrow morning before I leave).
Sooo, the plan is to hop on an overnight train from Johannesburg station (Shosholoza Meyl), get off at Prince Albert Road station and get on the bike. From there on to Prince Albert, to the top of Swartberg Pass, West to Gamkaskloof, sleep in the valley, reverse back out and head for Beaufort West and home.
Sleep two nights on the train (one there, one back), camp three-four nights and just get lost in an ancient landscape.
Can’t wait for the morning!
(Saturday Morning – 5th of April 2006)
Early morning to catch the train. The bike, trailer and luggage are all man-handled into Cindy’s car (a girl friend who “offered” to drop me off).
Of course, there’s the mandatory worry about having left something behind…let it be…
The process for getting bulky baggage onto the train is not described anywhere. Initially, I’m told the bike cannot travel with me on the train (in other words: it will reach the destination a day after me …not good). Then, it can ONLY travel with me, but must be in the emptiest cargo car. Like I would know which one that is? Ok, I can apologise later. Load up, manifest ticket in hand, let’s go!
I’m on the main line between Johannesburg and Cape Town and the full trip takes about 1.5 days. Inter-city train travel is such a marginal mode of transport in South Africa, it draws an interesting cross section of society.
Old folk visiting children/friends, middle-aged families looking for a new travel experience (or to relive childhood memories).
I settle into the dining car with a book and every intention to read. Alas…I find myself staring out at the passing landscape with a sense of detachment. The rhythmical beat from the wheels on the track having a hypnotic effect on my mind.
While I’m sitting in the car, the waiter hands me a cold Heineken. There can’t be very many moments in life as good this.
A young man (Freddy?) comes up and gestures “can I sit down?” Sure. Sandy hair, over-tanned skin and missing two front teeth. He sports a fashionable pair of sunglasses, to go with his golf cap, drawn low over the eyes to provide relief from the midday glare through the window.
Turns out, Freddy is a scrap yard dealer and is returning to Cape Town having just negotiated some deals with some mining company to purchase their scrap metal. Hmmm. Big money in it and huge margins, you should try it, he tells me. What the lad lacks in credibility he certainly makes up for in passion and confidence!
I don’t want to talk about what I do – it’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from here. So, we settle on a brief description of my route and mode of travel. When Freddy hears I’m planning to get off in the middle of the vast Karoo and CYCLE to Gamkaskloof, the customary “They invented cars, you know?” accompanies his incredulous laugh.
The train experience is captured rather accurately in this song: Die Heuwels Fantasties – Nare Kaskenades (a South African Folk Rock band) – enjoy.
Evening falls with a fantastic sunset, passable meal and the comfort of crisp cotton train blankets.
I wake up with a start when the conductor knocks on my door at 05:00 – we’ll be at Prince Albert Road at 06:30, time to get ready!
The bike and trailer offloaded. It takes two men – how’s that for travelling light? I watch the train slowly disappear from view. The village of Prince Albert Road owes its existence (and name) to the fact that the road heading to Prince Albert intersects the N1 (the main road between Johannesburg and Cape Town) at this point. Grand.
Time stands still on a chilly morning in a small Karoo village. Not even the stray dogs take note as I rig everything up, hop on the bike and take the first tentative pedal strokes. Nothing breaks, no rattles: So far so good.
The water in the bottles must be close to freezing, and my teeth hurt every time I take a swig. After about 10km I coast to a stop, get off and stomp my feet on the gravel to warm up. Savour this day, this moment and this desolate landscape.
Oh, and here’s me, getting lost in the landscape answering the call of nature…
Amazingly, the bike handles exactly like a single, unloaded one. There is a bit of drag on the uphills due to the additional weight, but it is easy to flick the bike from side to side standing up, or to shift my weight around in the saddle. It’s noisier due to the additional two wheels, but not enough to scare away the occasional roadside game.
The road is quiet this time of day with only a car or truck every 30 minutes or so – most pass with a friendly wave or hoot, recognising a fellow early-morning warrior on the road less travelled. The mountain range in the distance is where I’m heading, the clouds will hopefully clear by the time I get there.
Stopping at the local supermarket to stock up on food and drinks for the next couple of days.
A boy strolls over and marvel at the trailer – his dad follows close behind. After covering the initial where-are-you-from-and-where-are-you-going ground, Johan invites me to have lunch with his family. Turns out, he is originally from Johannesburg, runs an engineering business and has recently moved to Prince Albert. Him being a keen mountain biker, we inspect each others’ rigs and talk shop over lunch.
Having done 45km so far, I feel my legs are still fresh and should make it to at least the top of the Swartberg Pass. Off we go then…
A gravel road turns of the main road and presents…the gateway to adventure!
The cloud cover has thickened and does not bode well…
I pass a stream in the shadows of the narrow valley, rough rock faces to either side. A clump of poplar trees fight each other for some sunlight.
Immediately after, the gradient kicks up and the speed plummets into the single digits…settle in for the long haul buddy.
The extra weight of the baggage and trailer becomes very apparent. Heck, I can WALK faster than this!
Some distraction is offered on the side of the road: an old prison, used to secure the convict labourers when the road was built. I get off and explore the ruins on foot. Small trees are starting to grow out of the masonry walls, nature slowly reclaiming the space that is hers.
The legs are certainly not used to this pace or load…every pedal stroke is a pain, every meter is hard won.
After a long grinding while, I look back – a breath-taking view rewards the eye:
If you look closely, you’ll see the old building in the centre of the picture – that’s the prison I passed AGES ago! The road disappears to the right into the valley I just climbed out of.
Up-up-up we go. The road hits a set of switch-backs, each gaining 5-10 meters in elevation. It feels great looking back on every turn, seeing the views I’ve earned.
I.don’t.want.to.leave. Good thing too, since my legs are starting to cramp. Let’s take more pictures then…
My legs are really acting up though, and I realise I’m not making it much further for the day. Luckily, I’m at the false-top of the pass, a slight interlude before the road kicks again to go over the Southern ridge.
I pass the turn-off to Gamkaskloof (also called “The Hell”), a road I’ll be taking tomorrow morning.
I decide to look for a camping spot off the road but, as I pass through another corner, I see a house up the road. Even better, would be nice to bum a warm bed!
The house turns out to be deserted, but…OPEN! It is the old tollhouse, now converted for use by hikers in the area.
The empty windows and secluded setting sure makes it look haunted though…
I proceed to spend the scariest night of my life…not a single hiker shows up, so I’m all alone. One or two cars pass by and each time it feels like they are stopping at the turn-off, looking and then driving up to the house…
I fall asleep with the sound of the wind in the pines and sporadic creaking of old floorboards.
Never judge a day by its first and last hours.
Yesterday ended around the witching hour, with me scared witless by imaginary ghosts. This morning, my legs are just not working! The sun is shining though and a cool breeze blows.
It’s supposed to be a short day – only 35km, but it promises to be a tough one. The sight that greets me as I roll onto the road is breath-taking.
After taking the turn-off, the road climbs a bit before gently carving its way towards the valley of The Hell. It runs on the high mountain plateau, but encounters several streams and minor valleys along the way.
The pattern that develops is one of a gentle but continuous climb to a ridge, then a sharp drop on the other side, with occasional 90 degree bend thrown in for good measure. The drop ends in a water crossing (shallow, but always slippery), only to climb back out on the other side.
The road is in excellent condition, if a bit sandy.
A car approaches and stops for a chat. The driver assures me the road conditions are good, but that it might rain later on (lucky guess, judging by the cloud build up). Nevertheless, I’m offered a bottle of water and a friendly smile. I’ll take that, thanks!
Far, far in the distance, I can see the ragged saw tooth as the road clambers up the final ridge.
At lunch time, I stop at a water crossing, kick off my shoes and lie down with my feet in the ice cold water. The clouds above grow and dissipate in a continuous maelstrom of atmospheric winds. Below, I’m sheltered by the mountains with only a rustle of leaves.
The closer I get to the gateway to The Hell, the more pronounced the inclines become. My legs are complaining bitterly by this stage, and I take a break every 500 meters. No, not proud of this at all!
At the end of a particularly brutal section, I find two road workers next to the road. As I wobble to a painful stop, they come closer to chat and inspect my machine.
Working the road constantly, they’re essentially away from home for 2-3 months on end. They camp every night in a different location and toil day in and day out on obscure back roads. The littel bit of human interaction lifts my spirits and cure the legs, ready to tackle the next bit.
Many, many painful hours later, I crest the final climb, expecting a HUGE drop off. Instead, there’s only a plateau with slight decline. Talk about an anti-climax. At least I can let the brakes go and rest while moving.
Soon, however, the valley is revealed …what a sight!
The valley extends into the far right (Western) corner, where it is stopped short by the mountains. There is a way through, albeit via a very tough route.
Night falls quickly, and I make my way past the formal entrance to the valley, looking for accommodation.
The plan is to camp if necessary, but if I can score a room in a house, even better.
Turns out, I’m in luck. I happily spend an evening under the stars next to a roaring fire before retiring to a warm and cosy bed in a house that’s NOT haunted…
(Tuesday 9th of April 2006)
The morning breaks and finds me unwilling to get up. If yesterday was hard, today is going to be carnage.
To get into the valley, the road went through many ups, but many more and longer downs (since the valley is lower than the starting point at the top of the pass). So, today I’ll be clawing back every single meter given yesterday.
Starting with the climb out of the valley. Like this:
Finally, after a solid hour of climbing, I look back down. Amazing.
The clouds are building again, so on top of extremely tired legs, I’m worrying about rain. Not that it matters I guess, since everything is wrapped up and supposedly waterproof.
I’m planning to sleep in the Tollhouse again, but first, get back to the Swartberg pass, head for its top and then back down slightly to the overnight spot. A tough day for a wary traveller. Look at this short, short downhill, before the road kicks up forever. Pure pain.
Then this…it’s a joke! To the fit cyclist, this might seem like a trivial matter, but for me, now, it kills me. Coming over each new crest, I know the downhill lasts for 2 minutes, then it’s back to climbing for 30. Will this EVER end?
It just carries on and on and on. Literally until the end of the day. Then this:
I made it back out, and before sunset. Knowning my sleeping arrangements are sorted, I “quickly” head up to the top of the pass for the obligatory photo shoot.
And a look down the other side (looking South, towards George and the Indian Ocean):
Night falls quickly and bitterly cold. I head back down to the Tollhouse for another night of House of Horrors. Luckily not. My nerves are calmed by the sense of achievement that comes from doing three solid days of climbing with a heavy rig. I’m out stone cold by eight o clock, not a care in the world.
Day 4: Swartberg Pass to Leeu Gamka
(Go to top)
(Wednesday 10th of April 2006)
Its another beautiful morning, but another big day ahead. I plan to reach Leeu Gamka, another arbitary Karoo town in the mittle of nowhere (but conveniently located next to the railway line and the N1.
The weather looks good and taking this view, I’m looking directly at my destination for the day. Invisible to the naked eye of course.
A quick bomb down the pass the way I came three days ago with a stop in the valley at the bottom to snap this beaut:
I pass through Prince Albert, and take a gravel road North-East just after. Settle in for a slog.
The air is crisp, despite the Karoo’s status as semi-desert.
Absolutely awesome to not be in the granny gear all the time – I even hooked the big blade a couple of times!
Roads like these are wonderful…flat and very little thought required for actually riding. A catatonic state of riding zen, if you will.
I stop for lunch, and set a pot to boil for some roadside coffee. The silence is deafening and forces my thoughts into focus. I sit on a rock, waiting for the water to boil and just take in the vast, empty space. I can see 10km in each direction and there’s not a single soul in sight. Perfect.
The customary clouds start gathering again, but from experience I know: There will not be rain, not in this place.
Much later, I pass several abandoned homesteads on the way. The evening is drawing nearer and I REALLY want find a comfortable spot to sleep. First prize: Bum a bed on a farm (dinner too??).
Here’s one…but no-one home.
Night falls fast and very soon I’m enjoying a camp-coffee while watching a magical sunset.
I didn’t quite make Leeu Gamka, but guess I got close enough.