A Mountain Bike, A back pack full of sports nutrition and other needed gear, 5 new friends, 850k over 8 days throughout the South African wilderness and the ability to disconnect from the world = priceless.
One thing I can say for sure. Writing this, even though I made notes on my iPhone after each day, it is near impossible to capture in words the impact this trip had on each and everyone of us and the feelings of the moments experienced. It is but a glimpse inside of the thoughts inside my head.
Six guys, riding unsupported for 850km over 8 days in a pocket of South Africa is, was and will continue to be truly epic. There is no other way about it and that is just as it should be.
The crew: Raoul De Jongh, Guy Versey, Dan Hugo, Nic Lamond and Jacobus VD Merwe
Some themes for this trip:
1. Food and lots of it, it all good and it all stupidly cheap.
2. Family Farms
4. Parched As
5. Someone being a Honey Badger … in a light hearted way.
T minus 1 day to EUT2011 start
A day of travel. Raoul and I kickstarted it with a short 30min easy run in Stellenbosch (a place I’m going to have to come back to) before a quick breakfast, then packing a 4WD with 7 bikes (all info here), luggage, guys and one girl – Courtney Brown (Dan’s Boulder flat mate) who would drive the car back from George after Day 1 the Rock Pedal Classic.
The drive to George was via whats called the Garden Route, which is visually stunning. Stopping for fresh biltong (jerky) and seeing Elephants literally on the side of the road had this Aussie wide eyed and salivating for more.
Stopping at some of the boys family farms to add to the overall experience and hospitality. First was Dan Hugo’s, where his parents Pam and Stephen put on a spread for us (thank you) before a quick stop to a coffee roaster in Robertson to grab a brew and for Dan to load up on even more coffee.
All of us in disbelief on how much coffee Dan was going to lug on this trip, but all very grateful each morning that he did. Thanks Dan.
We arrived in George, went for a swim at a local Virgin Active club before the boys did up a big fillet of beef on the brie (BBQ) with salads. All pretty relaxed the day before the offical EUT2011 start.
Day 1 – The Rock Pedal Classic
This was one of the two times in the trip that we could ride without the weight of our backpacks. In the years past this race has been a two day affair. For this year the organisers decided on a one day 100km with 2000m vertical monster. A tough way to start a tough 8 days.
The first 50k seemed to fly by, going up over Montagu pass which we would do again the following day was stunning, but getting over into the valley on the other side meant temps in the 40’s. I came from doing the last of my prep in consistent temps under 10 deg celsius with more clothes on and frozen feet to this stifling heat. The second 50k was ‘ridden’ with some of the most brutal quadriceps cramps I have ever experienced. One near vertical rocky, technical 3k climb had me wondering if I would get up it, some what cursing and laughing at the same time to my predicament – 60k into our 850k adventure. While Nic was way off the front, and the others behind cruising, Raoul waited for me and distracted my mind.
The descent on the other side of the climb bordered on ridiculous. I watched a guy blow a front tyre in front of me and be lucky he didn’t come off. A bad crash here would likely end in heli trip (where you wouldn’t get to enjoy the ride).
I found myself very lucky at the bottom of one descent that Raoul and I had just flown down and had to stop to climb over a fallen tree. My front wheel had been making a banging noise on the way down courtesy of a skewer that had pooped itself open.
After a little over 5h of riding and the day was done. The next 30 minutes bordered on the hilarious with my quads continually seizing no matter what position I was in. Guy rolled in next with a cut to his eye continuing his tradition of coming off the bike. While Dan, Jacobus and Courtney rolled in with smiles a little while later.
Day one of eight ticked off.
Day 2 – George to Oudtshoorn
We said our goodbyes to Courtney Brown and rolled out for Outtshoorn at 7:30am with full and weighty backpacks. Thankfully Nic had somehow packed a second camelback which ended up be a lifesaver for me.
We once again got to experience the spectacular climb of Montagu Pass before descending down and stopping for coffee at Guys brothers farm in Herold where a few of the boys talked africans with Guys brother about rearing cattle.
The ride from Herold to Oudtshoorn introduced me to the Klein Karoo (think Outback). It’s quite desolate but beautiful in it’s own right. After a short 67km the day was heating up and another theme of my trip I was parched as. A welcomed lunch of Ostrich burger, an XXL fresh juice and milkshake seemed to hit the spot.
We pedalled back to our overnight stay at the ‘Best B&B’ where once again we got treated to some great hospitality and funnily enough the owners sister was a champ triathlete back in the day. A quick dip in the pool before a much needed nap. The temps were now pushing high 40’s.
With the need for more food, Raoul and I rode into town in the heat of the day. It was all consuming and my first thought was how the hell did my wife win an Ironman in this heat in China – respect. With a full back pack and extra grocery bags we made our way back and one thing that became apparent on this trip form the get go was that there were no slackers. Sure we all got tired but things got done and done as a whole for the group. Food was never just made for one person or by one person. Bikes got washed, as did clothes but Dan had full control over the coffee and patiently made cup after cup on his little portable percolator for which we were most grateful.
With the heat the rest of the boys must have been envious of my shaved head and found that their hair had to go. So on the trip to town a set of clippers were purchased and haircuts given before heading out on a late afternoon run. While Nic, Jacobus and Guy ran for 45min. Dan, Raoul and myself ran a little longer. An impromptu route following a fence line and then a little single track somehow ended us up running across a runway, making this epic trip that little bit more epic.
Dinner a line that come out of my mouth on a daily basis was how cheap and good the food was. I just couldn’t get my head around it. I guess coming from a place where my dollar bought at least 8.5 times the amount of Rand helped, but comparing apples for apples I found it amazing cheap.
We rode back into town in search of a place to eat and happily landed in the Queens Hotel who let us leave six mountain bikes in the lobby. We started with a beer at the bar before sitting down to a three course meal and a couple of bottles of wine. Raoul, Nic and I shared starters of carpaccio of Ostrich, a beetroot salad and sczheun squid. The rack of lamb I had for my main was the best I’ve ever had and it was finished off with strawberry pavlova. All of this cost $30AUD a head!
Day 3 – Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert
We wanted an early start as we didn’t want to be caught climbing the Swartberg Pass in conditions of yesterday. Only five minutes into the ride, Nic realised he had forgotten his water bottles thus giving another coffee opportunity at the Queens Hotel Cafe where Dan lovingly practiced his barista skills.
So a little behind time we rolled out of Oudtshoorn for PA via Mattys Beukes family farm where for the last five years he has meticusly built single track after single track to perfection for his MTB Destination. Mattys gave us a preview of the riding which left smiles on the dials every minute of the hour riding sans packs we spent there. They have also put a few nice chalets on the farm, so I would venture to say EUT2012 will spend a night there. Who in there right mind could resist the opportunity to ride more of this single track heaven?
All too quickly it was time to depart for the pass. The day got lonely for me and I was was in the hurt box. In fact I didn’t hurt that much, there was just no power in the legs. I was happy enough to let the boys go and be at one with my own thoughts. I learnt a valuable lesson that I needed to eat more, lots more. When the intensity is relatively low but the volume of hours high on this ‘camp’ the focus turned to the tank needs to be continually filled up.
The terrain again was resolute but you could see the mountain range that had to be ridden over in the distance and eventually make out the road. Raoul who was always flying was waiting for me at the base and we started the ascent together. A little over an hour of climbing before a small descent passing a road that little did I know I’d be taking into Die Hel the following day. A long 1200 vertical descent over 9 or so km to the valley floor where I got one of my favourite pictures of the trip. Thankfully from here we had a slight downhill and a cranking tailwind to led us to Lazy Lizards cafe where six dirty, hungry and parched boys demolished a ton of food with the bill coming to a total of 580R ($70 for 6 lamb curries, a box of peaches, litres of yoghurt, cold drinks, and milkshakes). I was ‘learning’ to take a leaf out of Dan’s and Jacobus book and EAT.
We rolled ourselves a few hundred meters down the road to our accommodation – a little cottage where the owner had stocked our fridge full of food and the biggest apple pie any of us have ever seen. We weren’t going hungry. After a nap we ventured out to get some much needed supplies. Chamios cream was running low, so a trip to the pharmacy for some fissan (zinc cream) that is typically used for nappy rash. In Australia it’s called pseudo cream and it works a treat. Then we were off for more food! Back to Lazy Lizzards where Dan and Jacobus bought two more boxes.. yes – boxes – of peaches before heading to the local dairy. I got another couple of blocks of cheese, some more yoghurt and some drinking yoghurt for everyone and once again I couldn’t believe how little it all cost. On the way home I got to happily experienced the marvels of modern technology out the front of Lazy Lizzards which was now closed but I could still pick up their wifi to video Skype call Charlotte and Mack. To say this made my day would be an understatement. I have the coolest wife in the world who is cool with me disappearing for 10 days in South Africa and I am grateful for that. DAS system proved very useful as it improved wireless performance.
After a day in the hurt box, I declined the run with the boys and cracked open a cold beer and washed bikes. Then enjoyed some fantastic cloud formations a sunset and a relaxed dinner with us all discussing our plans for 2012. I’d be psyched to see everyone achieve the stated goals.
Day 4 Die Hell
An appropriately named place for where we were heading today. Over breakfast Raoul let it be known that we had to re-climb the backside of Swartberg pass to get up to the entrance to Die Hell. That meant a load of vertical to start a very long day . excellent. You look up and up and the road disappears. At times a comfortable gradient at others not so comfortable. After 1h40 and only 14km we all regrouped at the top to reapply sunscreen and soak up the 360 degree vista. My legs felt much better today and I had purposely fuelled up as big as I could with the spread put on by our Prince Albert host Diane.
A short descent and then the right turn into the start of Die Hell where we had 37km of rolling hills, climbs and some descending that was just pure joy. The temps started to kick it up a notch and well over the weatherman’s prediction of 25 degrees. After what seemed an eternity I rounded a corner and got saturated with the view into the valley of Die Hel. Wow followed by childish screams of joy into the never ending switchbacks. Loving the fact you could let loose passing those on enduro motorbikes and the few that would spend a whole day driving bumpy roads into literally nowhere. Just as I hit the bottom of the descent my GoPro Camera mount snapped for a second time leaving the camera hurtling away. Thankfully it didn’t happen a few minutes earlier!
Another 5k on hot, sandy roads and we arrive at the only kiosk around. The boys have learnt from previous trips to order food in advance. After 4h08 riding in the now baking hot sun, we find some shade, drinks and a tasty Karoo meal. All was quite as we pounded down lunch, refuelled and hydrated as much as possible. I took a group shot on the GoPro and instantly felt the viscous sting of the midday sun. The kitchen was getting hot as we literally entered no mans land. We had an hour in front of us through the valley and supposedly one little ‘kicker’ of a climb before descending to a dead end.
Before we even got there we had to negotiate sand that led to a locked gate which we only got permission to enter at the 11th hour. Without that permission the road in Die Hel literally ends there. Most turn around here (if they go further than the kiosk) and head out of the valley the same way they came in. For us it meant a little extra riding and then a portage up Die Leer. Oh that ‘Little Kicker’ was a bitch. Pure and simple the hardest climb of the day. It put everyone into oxygen debt, and swear words where thrown as a slight slip meant a foot down and then an inevitable walk.
We then descended to literally the end of the road where two nice properties where located. No one was home, but you have to wonder why you’d build there. It’s beautiful but you’re a long and bumpy way from anywhere. We got some shelter under a big bale and broke our bikes down. Wheels off and cable tied to the frame to make the frame smaller and easier to climb with. Bike shoes are replace for racing flats (when you’re carrying your bag you go the lightest option).
Die Leer.. it’s a ladder up a mountain. Supposedly an old Donkey trail but I’m thinking more like a mountain goat track. You’d never know it existed by just looking at the mountain. But in-between two poplar trees and across a little river was the trail. I got a few steps waiting for Nic before I remembered I’d left my Garmin back under the bale. A quick run back to get it and up the ladder we went. The near vertical ascent zig zags its way up over loose, rocky and sometimes extremely narrow path. About 800 vertical and 1600m later we topped out one by one. After 52 minutes of hauling a bike, a full backpack it was good to find shade under a tree and laugh at ourselves.
The bugger was we had a long way to go and my camel back was dry. The boys came to the party and shared some some water and then once again we where off on an old rock, challenging 4WD track through arid conditions. It seemed like we were always going uphill and finally it was ‘hello legs’, so grateful that you could come to the party. I eventually caught up with Raoul who mentioned there might be a water tank or at least a trough that may have ‘water’ in it for the cattle that wander up here. Last year they had to resort to drinking water out of the trough I was hoping we didn’t have to resort a bear gyrlls rendition.
Soon enough we could see a water tank in the distance with water pouring out the top.. however as we got closer a herd of cows and a few feisty bulls with horns and stamping their back feet stood between us. The overflowing tanks of bore water was our goal and we shooed the herd to a safe distance. I was once again out of water and the cold, clean water just revived the senses. One of those times when water is just so good.
Some more gnarly loose trail and then a hairball rocky descent and out of die Hell. The sign in my self portrait says it all- to hell n gone. This year the accommodation in Seweweekspoort was booked a further 10km down the road.. mentally for me this proved the most challenging part of the day- on gravel road, a brutal headwind with yet another climb in the distance and no real idea where our farm stay was. The fuel and water gauge both read empty but 10h10′ after we rolled out of prince Albert we rolled into Geoffrey’s farm with thousand mile stares.
Geoffrey took stock of the situation and made up pail after pail of fresh lemonade as we also scoffed loads of his own dried apricots. Absolute Heaven. Ever so slowly we got some life back into us and all had that satisfied feeling that comes with such an adventure.
The day was nothing short of epic and Geoffrey’s hospitality put the final touches to it. He treated us like royalty and laid out a feast of organic leg of lamb from his own herd, loads of vegetables, and a couple of bottles of red. We all soaked up the views, each others company and Geoffrey’s stories. A memorable day.
My Garmin showed a little more elevation than Raoul’s at 3400m for the 113k.
Day 5 – Seweweekspoort to Anysberg Nature Reserve
We left Geoffrey’s farm after he once again fed us in epic proportions. Today’s ride promised to be much easier than yesterday. The opening stages were on paved roads, so we made quick progress. I got to see my first load of Baboons that were seen cheekily running out of the fruit farm, no doubt with stomach’s full. There was a lot more chatting today and we were all in good spirits. After a little climb on the paved road we turned left and headed for the reserve. Once into the reserve proper we had 23k of 4WD track that was sandy and the pace was on to get to our destination. This was that uncomfortable riding that makes you strong but at the same time you have that internal battle of just dealing with the uncomfortableness or letting go and dealing with a slower solitary ride. Uncomfortableness wins and a tad under 4 hours ride time we rolled into our chalet accommodation in Anysberg Reserve. The pool was calling.
We had organised the warden to buy and stock up our Chalet with food. For Dan and Jacobus it wasn’t enough and they talked/charmed the lady working in the park into getting her son to drive from her house some 40km away to bring more food. It was much appreciated by all. The day was short on the riding front, so relaxing, swimming in the ‘pool’ and an afternoon run where we had Red Hartebeest run near us was very special.
A few of us climbed up on the roof to take in the sunset which seemed to last for ever. Even after the sun disappeared the light from that direction wanted to stick around. Ever so slowly the light faded and was replaced by the most spectacular star show I have ever witnessed. We just sat there, looked up and enjoyed the simple pleasure of star gazing. The excitement of ‘shooting stars’ was evident from all of us. Just one more and then we will go to bed.
Day 6 – Anysberg to Ashton (Kleinhoekkloof)
Another shortish, fast 100k day as we headed for Raoul’s family wine farm in Ashton. It seemed Nic was eager to push the pace pretty early, so the uncomfortableness was there once again until we dipped towards a dried out creek bed and scared a few Red Hartebeests just off the side of the track. That slowed the pace while we enjoyed the realness of the experience. Even after seeing so many Ostrich farms early on in the tour, seeing them in the wild Ostrich was enjoyable. Then a Gemsbok running off to the side of us that then darted across the track in front of us point the icing on the cake. Special is all I can say and it made my trip feel complete.
Somewhere down the road we took a left towards Montagu that is no where near the Montagu pass we climbed on days 1 and 2 and with that turn came a vast expanse and a headwind. I really didn’t want to be in a rush to leave this place and was doing my utmost to soak it all up and enjoy the moment. Soon enough we left Anysberg Nature Reserve behind us and climbed the high side of Otberg Pass. Topping out at 999m the next 17k or so was all a welcomed descent. The headwind made us work for it but we did so in a pace line fashion until stopping for lunch in Montagu where I had a venison pie and multiple double espressos before the final 15k on paved roads to the De Jongh farm.
Getting to experience some of the guys family’s on this trip made it even more special. Being at Kleinhoekkloof was no exception. After another 4h ride and 100km we rolled into the family farm it went something like Jack Black Beer, plunge pool, shower, then wine ‘tasting’, food and laughs. We got to drink a load of fantastic wines that aren’t even for sale yet. Raoul cooked up a tasty risotto, while we all enjoyed the hospitality put on by Dennis and Remmel De Jongh. More wine was had before the lemonchello was bought out, which is supposedly a tradition. I can say that Remmel made sure that Dan got his share.
An interesting way to ready ourselves for our biggest day in distance yet from Ashton to Elgin. Game on.
Day 7 – Ahston to Elgin
Into the unknown. Raoul took us into a valley for which he really had no idea how we would get up and over the back of Jonaskop Mountain. By the time we got to the 4WD drive tracks in the distance we were definitely committed to finding a way over. There was no going back. With three boys on the phone to various people who had some knowledge of the area a sort of route was planned and the adventure started. We found some old Cape Epic tape and the route was a mix of sand, loose rock, carrying bikes through something that may have resembled a track until we finally stumbled onto a track the Eskom (electricity) guys use. This didn’t make the riding that much easier but it was ridable. Once again the view at the top was worth it and it showed us our way out through undoubtedly private farm land.
The spirits soared as we rode through wheat fields with all sorts of bok running off in the distance and then we were rewarded with seeing Blue Cranes. After hopping over a few gates we were back on roads but had some serious work to do in front of us. First up was a quick stop for food in Villersdorp and then heading towards Nuweberg and to be climbing once again to our destination in Elgin. Supposedly the plan was for another route but with the time in the saddle already being what it was, the direct route was favoured.
There were calls of the best game pies in South Africa at a farm stall in Peregrine. After 8 hours and some 150 odd km of riding we hit the Peregrine farm stall and between six guys (two in particular) there was a lot of food consumed. Raoul believes he counted “8 pies, 2 quiches, and 4l of yoghurt, 2 bags of crisps, and a box of fruit, 12 cold drinks, 6 ice creams and 4 coffees before we got up and I am pretty sure I missed some.”
Even after the drinking of last night which funnily enough left none of us feeling in the slightest bit shady. We needed (wanted) some more. With some space provided by the dwindling supply of sports nutrition packs were filled with bottles of wine and more food before we had to ride on further to our nights accommodation. Again this was new and no one knew exactly how far it was. Thankfully after another 20 or so minutes we arrived at our last nights accommodation. It wasn’t long before Jacobus had the fire going for the brie (once again food was purchased in advance of our arrival) and a feast was assembled washed down with good wine and fun banter between the boys. I also got treated to the best bed and had my best sleep of the trip.
Day 8 – Elgin to Cape Town
And then there was one big green bottle sitting on the wall…
There was much debate in which route to take back to Cape Town to provide this Aussie with an experience he will fondly remember. For the most part it wold be on roads but from Elgin after we said goodbye to Dan and Jacobus who headed directly for Stellenbosch we made our way to Grabouw, on some fun trails and up an over an old wagon trail where we carried our bikes out of respect. On the other side we got spoilt with some super fun single track into Somerset West.
It all is such a blur, but I remember being kindly given a howling tailwind along a coastal road to Muizenberg were we stopped and got a reality dose that we were indeed back in civilisation. We fuelled up with wood fired pizzas at a place called Knead and the noise was deafening. From there we decided the shorter route was best.. plus I had a plane to catch so we road through the Constantia winelands, where it was awesome to see Nic’s dad drive by in his old convertible Merc wearing a Boer War hat no less welcoming us nearly home. We then went via Camps Bay and finally back into Green Point (Cape Town). 120km bought us to near 850k for the 8 days.
After showers and a shave we headed down to Hudsons for burgers and beers and an attempt to get back into some sort of normality. It was then time to pack my bike and gear, say my goodbyes and head to the airport headed for Heathrow and Macks first Christmas with six bottles of Kleinhoekkloof wines no less.
As Raoul says in his post. The trip is special. Period.
The chance to disconnect from the world while doing something that challenges you both mentally and physically while being around and supported and supporting new friends is something that we all need to do. The chance to be out amongst nature at it’s finest is place worth pursuing and provide memories of the fondest kind.
A trip like this teaches you a lot about yourself. and from understanding comes improvements.
Raoul, Guy, Nic, Dan and Jacobus – wow – what else can I say but thank you. It was a pleasure getting to know you and I look forward to spending some time with each of you again in the future. Raoul/Guy – If the invites there for EUT2012, count this Aussie in.
What an adventure.
EUT2011 GoPro Footage to come.
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