An intrepid adventure in South Africa’s Karoo desert
The Klein or Little Karoo in the Western Cape is a long valley that lies between the Swartberg and Langeberg mountain ranges.
One of the most unique and beautiful parts of South Africa, the Little Karoo is sandwiched between impressive mountains that offer the adventurous ever-changing road conditions: pale dusty gravel, rocky calico doubletrack, packed dirt roads, parched earth, and the slithery odd bit of sand. Intermittent encounters with the rock formations typical of the Cape folded mountains reveal themselves now and then, and combined with the odd sightings of actual wild animals and strange vegetation, the area in a whole is quite unique.
Geographically, it is a 290 km long valley, only 40–60 km wide, formed by two mountain ranges, the Swartberg to the north, and the continuous Langeberg-Outeniqua range to the south. The Little Karoo, which is the southernmost border of the Great Karoo, was an impenetrable area, boxed in by these ranges on all sides. So prohibitive in fact, that the area around Cape Town developed its own biosphere – one of 8 in all of Africa.
The first European settlers landed in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, and between 1659 and 1664 many unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the Great Karoo from the south west were undertaken, until finally reaching the area from the south east. Much time is spent whilst crossing the various passes marvelling at the astonishing toil undertaken by the early settlers to create these trade routes, principally for the delivery of ostrich feathers which were in insanely high demand.
Luckily for us, to penetrate the Karoo today one must only hire a van and procure a good guide. In this case the van came from Volkswagen, and the guide was none other than Stan Engelbrecht a well-known figure in the closely familiar world of South African cycling, particularly that of the DIY racing and touring variety. Along with two of his mates and a German cycling journalist, after participating in the first Eroica South Africa, we set about on a 400km journey to map the course of a new event Stan will bring to life in 2017, a multi-stage gravel race dubbed “Karoobaix”. The routes we would be taking were at times unexplored by bike, at least to our knowledge, so in some ways for all, it was a voyage to the unknown.
Stan, as some may know, is the founder of the Tour of Ara, and knows the Little Karoo better than most. Despite having already a few achievements in my gravel palmares, I took the opportunity to outfit my self with the best bikepacking bags, and that meant Apidura. Having had some involvement in the World Cycle Race and the original Transcontinental, I was long aware of their solid reputation and could not wait to try them out myself. If something is good enough for Mike Hall, then it should be doubly so for a mere mortal such as myself. The bags were simple to fit to my bike, and in retrospect I had packed damn near perfectly, so I would like to share a few things about bikepacking for any newbie making the wise decision to take up the fast traveller lifestyle.
- Bring only one (of anything). For me, that meant one kit for riding and one set of warm clothes for the evening. My riding kit included the merino PEdALED Kaido jersey, which when hung to dry each night over a bristling thorn bush, woke refreshed and considerably less smelly than a lycra top which would have been unbearable throughout a five day journey. This rule also goes for your group.
- Whichever tyre system your are running, make sure you are expertly capable at repairing a puncture or other tyre failure. Thorns abound in South Africa. I was warned to run tubeless, which was not possible for me, so I upgraded to Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 42c which I had seen some of the more experienced riders running at the Dirty Kanza 200 last year. As a group, the only puncture we experienced on this trip befell a tubeless rider courtesy of a slit sidewall. Such repairs can be tricky trailside, especially with no cover in the midday sun. It may be considered “old school”, but i will stick to running tubes at higher pressure, even considering long, rocky descents at top speed.
- If you can reach a place to get food each day, you can drastically reduce your need for carrying capacity. Ride with the water bladder as empty as possible, but still full enough for trail-side eventualities.
- Bring an extra cloth backpack. Once you are near your night’s lodgings, you will likely need to ride for provisions. A cloth sports or shopping bag you can wear over your shoulders is a lifesaver.
- Opt for a warmer sleeping bag. Though it was still technically summer, nights in the desert can get chilly, and a summer bag is not a great choice if you want to sleep through the night. For that matter, make sure your evening attire is cosy down to 5°C.
- If you drink alcohol, carry a flask. Not unlike sailor’s rations, we found that 100ml per person/ day (usually brandy, which is the common domestic brown liquor in SA) is the minimum. Another neat trick is to remove the bag from a box of wine and strap it to your Saddle Pack. It only takes up as much space as there is wine remaining, and when empty, you can simply inflate it with air and use it as a pillow.
- Opt for dried food. SA is blessed with very high quality dried nuts, fruit, and meat. We lived each day mostly on unsalted cashews, dried mango, and “biltong”, which is dried beef, antelope, or ostrich. Leave the energy bars at home.
- Eat well. Stan + Co. were adamant that no matter how inconvenient, we must eat like kings each night. Be creative, search for whatever you can find that is local and in good condition, and let your dinner and breakfast table be a source of intense pride. Clean pots with grass and dirt, and marvel at your culinary accomplishments. PRO TIP: a carton of eggs will fit perfectly atop your saddle pack, by threading the webbing between the egg compartments. Eggs survived crushing MTB descents at 50kmh+!
- Camp in seclusion. The most dangerous animals in Africa are humans, so best to camp away from them. (Though mind the scorpions anyway).
- Consider African attire for riding. A sun hat and long-sleeve buttoned shirt are both great to keep the sun back a bit. (I had neither and had to make do with a handkerchief under a casquette)
All in all we travelled for 5 days, saw many strange and beautiful things, got along splendidly, and mapped a good bit of Karoobaix in the end A flight to SA is somewhat reasonably priced, and once there, prices seem much less than in Europe or USA, which should be a big pull for cycle travellers on a budget. However SA can be a bit dodgy, so best to go with the locals if you are unfamiliar. A great way to do this would be to sign up for the Tour of Ara or Karoobaix in 2017.
Now for the next bikepacking adventure in 2016 before the weather turns cold!