"One of the most interesting trips of my life"
24 May 2015 - by Elizabeth Schaerer
It was at a 60th birthday party that the concept of a cycle tour through the Karoo was first bandied about. It sounded like a great idea; after all, our thoughts of the Karoo were of wide open spaces and flat terrain, perfect for cycling, and it was something new for a group of us who were trying to prove that age doesn’t stand in the way of a challenge. So eight of us made a vague agreement to this plan and proceeded to get on with our everyday lives, lives that did not include cycling!
It was only when we needed to make a commitment to David Southey of Great Karoo Cycling that the memory of an energetic holiday idea resurfaced. It still didn’t prompt any major moves towards real training. We were woken up from our complacency a couple of weeks prior to departure when the final itinerary was sent to us. Suddenly the reality loomed that we had to ride about 200 kilometres over four days. Our organiser desperately asked if gel seats would help a bunch of amateur cyclists accomplish this. The answer was a very firm message from Southey that we must not think of this as a “Sunday afternoon tea party”. Wow, that certainly got the nervous energy flowing! The average age of our group was 57. Only the youngster of 41 owned a bicycle, the rest of us hired them through a rental company in the Karoo.
We scrambled off to buy the gel seat covers and proper cycling attire. Some of us spent a bit of time on exercise bikes or riding around the block. Real fear reigned the night before departure, especially amongst the four ladies. Would our bums be too sore to attempt the second day? Could we keep up with the others? Would the non-cycling years result in undignified falls?
Colesberg was the starting point for what was to become one of the most interesting trips of my life, full of awesome surprises. We were warmly welcomed at the Lighthouse where our enthusiastic hostess distributed the hired bikes and suggested riding up and down the main street as a warm-up. No one fell off so we decided we were ready and spent the rest of the afternoon doing a walking tour of the very interesting old town. This generated a healthy hunger, satisfied by a lavish Karoo-style dinner which included new delicacies such as sheep tails.
On day one our introduction to the “Tour de Karoo” was “Heartbreak Hill”. It didn’t take long to discover that the Karoo is NOT flat. We’d barely made it onto the dirt road outside Colesberg when we had our baptism of fire! Obviously the compensation of going uphill is the relieving downhill on the other side, but sometimes the “top” is an illusion and there are several climbs before you reach the easier bits. It was at this point that we started appreciating having signed up. There’s just the sweeping landscape of the Karoo, flawless blue skies and no cell phone signal, so we could simply enjoy the nothingness. Yes, there are the occasional homesteads with their broad stoeps and of course you see the famous Karoo sheep. Then you might get lucky, as did one of our group, in racing a duiker which overtook him as he reached 37 kilometres per hour.
Day one’s cycling ended in a brunch where we were to stay at Karoo Nights Country Lodge. One of the things we learnt quickly is that the “Karoovians” aim to fill you up. Diets were soon forgotten. Main meals on the tour usually include succulent Karoo lamb, vegetables, yes fresh ones locally grown, followed by scrumptious puddings. And the homemade rusks are irresistible. All “eaters” are catered for whether gluten intolerant or “banting”. Any weight that we hoped to lose cycling, was soon put on with all the amazing meals. Our hostess at Karoo Nights, Marine, is a cooking enthusiast and in true Karoo-style hospitality, gave us a goat’s cheese making demonstration the afternoon we were there.
Something I learned about the Karoo – it’s full of history. The people are the friendliest, most hospitable you could wish to meet and go back generations.They’re proud of their heritage and full of good stories to tell. Homes we visited are full of relics, like a bible we saw dating back to the 1700s and a massive twenty-seater dining room table. The gardens are lovingly cared for and equally full of charm. Among the rolling plains are reminders of the Anglo Boer War Concentration Camps and there are monuments to Boer heroes, but then you’ll also find a 1950s Chevy in the veld, now used as a shelter for lambs.
Day two of our “tour” saw us tackling a more technical section for cycling. What this meant was some stoney and rocky roads and a few more rutted sections on jeep trails. These are, however, navigable and it’s no disgrace to walk the extra steep parts. In any case there are plenty of stops and sustenance plus the reassurance of a back up vehicle.
This was the day we had some bike troubles – brakes sticking, a pedal falling off, stiff gears etc. We had a spare bike and managed to overcome the problems, but it was a lesson that you cannot fully enjoy a cycling trip if your equipment isn’t functioning properly.
Bethulie, location of our third and fourth nights appears to consist of unassuming houses typical of a Free State dorpie, but we were told some were the homes of famous missionaries, actors, and ghosts. Our host and owner of the fascinating Royal Hotel, is a marvellous raconteur and tour guide. His tour of the town ended with a piano recital by an internationally recognised concert pianist! Another stunning surprise.
On days three and four we cycled through the Oviston Game Reserve then the Gariep Game Reserve, becoming part of a unique vista. The plains around the Gariep Dam are simply teeming with game. There are great herds of a variety of Antelope, Wlidebeest and Zebra, often thundering along at great pace. Move over Serengeti! The spectacle of these species in such numbers and cycling along behind the clouds of dust left by the hammering hooves, made us feel absolutely part of the landscape.
It was a real pity to leave these special areas and head back out onto the tar. Our compensation was a ride over the impressive Gariep Dam wall and a stay at Waschbank, a beautiful retreat on the banks of the Orange River.
Our final day of cycling once again involved a variety of terrains, from rather steep tarred sections to negotiating very rocky inclines. By now, we were so blasé about our cycling skills that the challenges were something of a pleasure. The end of the trip saw us wend our way around the local Bethulie Dam before finally enjoying a well -deserved bottle of celebratory champagne.
Yes we had cycled 185 kilometres through the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape and the Free State. And yes, it’s perfectly possible for a group of multi-generational amateur cyclists to accomplish this feat. We had all come through the trip exhilarated and unscathed.
Notes about cycles and cycling:
1) David Southey has bought new bikes to remedy the unreliability problem of hired bikes.
2) From experience, a gel seat cover gives cyclists improved comfort.
3) Rusty cyclists will enjoy the trip more if they prepare by getting a bit cycling fit as well as getting some practice handling a real bike if they usually train on an exercise bike.