On a Five-day Great Karoo Cycling Trail

PETER SULLIVAN rounds up the Magnificent Seven for a five-day stint around Gariep, and they leave it with way more than they bargained for.

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A famous travel writer once suggested that people rather want to read about how terrible your trip was, than how wonderful; they enjoy hearing of terrors rather than triumphs.

Well, 20 minutes into our trip we had our first disaster. The brand-new bike transporter-trailer we were towing with four bikes upright on it unhitched itself at 90km/h en route from Bethulie to Colesberg, ran a few metres on its own, hit a side bollard on the tar shoulder, flipped completely, and landed heavily, upside-down, with the bikes underneath, pretty squashed. Not a pretty sight.

It took four of us to lift the trailer. There was a mangled mess underneath and only one bike emerged pretty much unscathed – mine. The back rim had a slight nick on it and a little wobble. Back brakes hindered the wheel going around because of the wobble. We removed them. My bike was then nicknamed ‘Klipdrift’ because of the Afrikaans saying, ‘Klipdrift het nie brieke nie’ (Brandy has no brakes). Whisky warns you when to stop drinking.

We arrived in Colesberg, and emerged a bit unsteadily from our trailer accident to be met by a smiling, cool and calm Bianca, who told us replacement bikes were already on the way, would we like a drink, here’s a cold cloth for your face, your room awaits, five singles and one couple, is it? Dinner will be served at the local restaurant at 07h30 if that’s okay?

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Colesberg is a long way from any sea, yet we seven were allocated beautiful rooms at Bianca’s oddly named Lighthouse Guest House. At dinner, the star of the evening was the starter of Karoo ‘prawns’ that are actually lamb tails, about as thick and as long as a big middle finger, utterly delicious, fatty and meaty with a very lickable interlinked bone in the middle. My mouth waters as I write. A few good dops of Klippies and coke – my favourite tipple – and I slept like a baby, dreaming of trailers that fly in the night.

By 9am the next morning all seven bikes were either fixed by us, or borrowed or begged from locals by Bianca’s husband Brian. Well not me, really, I’m useless at fixing things, but between Craig (a Zimbabwean), Paul (a doctor) and Michael (a lawyer) we were ready. Over the next days only Don (a lawyer) had trouble with his gears.

The first ride is seldom the best. I was nervous, happy to get on the road, yet pretty unfit. We rode through farms, stopped under a tree for breakfast, and then the trip really seemed to start. Nerves were gone, the sun was high, Karoo grasses magnificent in the special light of the place.

At lunchtime we arrived at a beautiful farm that offered Karoo Nights Lodge, a splendid garden, cold beers and a salad-rich lunch served by the solicitous Hentie. A big man, tall, slightly stooped as if to listen to us more closely, and with the slow and carefully enunciated plod of words that is the Karoo accent, he looks like a farmer, but acts like the maître d’ of a fancy restaurant.

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Ever mindful of our welfare, he told us who owned which farms, who was married to whom, where the skeletons lay, the farmers’ troubles, the Karoo’s joys, his wife’s garden secrets, and then put us on the back of a trailer behind a tractor. There we sat on bales and were chugged across the farm at sunset to see the buffalo, the gemsbok, bat-eared foxes, springbok, Korhaans et al.

On day two we started along the farm road, past horse breeders and sheep farms, feeling a little too filled up with Hentie’s breakfast, struggling up the up bits and cautious down the downs as the roads were tracks and the tracks were slippery.

Along the way we met Marene van der Walt, pronounced Mar-e-nay, our hostess-to-be. A short, stocky woman born and bred in the Karoo, as was her father, Marene is fast becoming a famous chef in this area. Morning Glory is the name of their farm lodge that has pretty rooms perfectly furnished, mine with a vista over the Karoo veld.

Here they farm all sorts of things, from thoroughbred horses to indigenous goats, Nguni cattle and, of course, sheep. The cattle are so beautiful, no wonder people like to paint them and put their skins on their smart floors. At the farm entrance there was one bay stallion standing proudly, whose job it is to see if the mares are ready to be covered. He is called Fluffer for reasons I’d rather not go into, and is a truly beautiful animal.

As the sun set I visited the ‘honesty bar’ in an outside lounge. It proved to be my undoing, as the many Klippies and cokes it dispensed fuddled my memory of exactly what delicious food Marene prepared for us. I just remember it was special. Marene informed us we would fare better without a big breakfast, so to cycle in Oviston Nature Reserve we left early, about 6am, a lovely time of day. When the sun was up, buck jumping, air crisp, bikes working, bodies not too sore. Besides the five men, we had two women, Rusty (a doctor) and Alexandra (ICU nursing sister). Much medical advice available.

We had cycled the day before through three provinces, Northern Cape, Free State and Eastern Cape and were now in the Eastern Cape. The end of the ride was into the wind, along a sand wall, truly tough, after a long climb up a steep jeep trail, very bumpy with loose shale. I struggled with my e-bike. How our two ladies did so well I don’t know. They were the stars of the day.

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Eben’s place, Orange River Lodge on Orange Valley Farm, is not as swish as the preceding two lodges, but my room was good, clean, big, tidy, with a shower. A boat ride on the dam was cancelled due to high wind, so he took us around the surroundings in his bakkie. The three of us who sat in the front with Eben enjoyed an endless stream of comments from him about the dam’s village and its inhabitants and the size of the wall and the poaching and the robberies.

Day Four was probably the best of our rides, starting downhill. Downhill on a bike is a rare pleasure, much enjoyed by me, and we started fresh, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the entrance to the reserve on the Free State side of Gariep Dam.

One superb moment, while cycling around the dam was having two Blue Cranes fly in formation above us for about ten minutes, honking and clearly enjoying the morning air. “Ja, these two live here,” Eben said with some satisfaction. “Here you will see more, on the Free State side.” And we did. At least four flocks of them, happily doing what cranes do at the edge of the dam.

In the reserve we met the urbane Anthony Hocking, our host-to-be, author of more than 40 books, and a character. He is eccentric in a delightful, old-world way, more English than the English, cocking his head to one side to listen, happy to offer his opinion, listen to yours, and end discussions with a chuckle of acceptance.

He owns the Royal Hotel which has no sign on the whitewashed building to say what it is. Puzzling for first-time visitors to the town because you can’t find it. Yet he delights in that. Inside, the hotel is even more eccentric than himself. Walls are covered in 120 000 books, wallpapered in them really, bought mostly at charity shops, plus 80 000 vinyl records in their sleeves, many also bought at charity shops. Extraordinary.

Hocking is much more than an eccentric. Not a fount of knowledge, bigger, more like an enormous dam with a controlled sluice which he opens to tell you his stories of the Boer War or Engelse Oorlog or South African War, whichever title you prefer. A torrent of knowledge, delightfully told. Late afternoon saw a surprise classical music concert by pianist Benjamin Fourie at Benjamin’s house.

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On that last cycle Anthony took us to the farmstead of Jacques and Suzette van Rensburg. Another larger-than life character, Jacques regaled us with stories. How he blew the place up one day because he was trying to gas the ants. His attempt to drive out bees using people dressed in old wool sacks and the bees climbed under the sacks to create havoc.

The two of them have a weird, special garden. Jeans filled with flowers, fairies, sculptures, odd wall paintings, like the Owl House but much brighter, cleaner, well kept, happier. Jacques reminded me of the superb painting by Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, a happy, sociable man.

On our final night the inimitable Hocking gave a lecture to our Magnificent Seven, together with a few other guests, on the British attempts to capture the town, the brave lieutenant who stopped the bridge being blown up, stories and stories to delight the mind and numb the memory. Anthony Hocking should be declared a National Treasure, a National Monument even, if that will preserve him for posterity.

If you are not a cyclist, I urge you to visit Bethulie and its Royal Hotel, spend a night at the Lighthouse in Colesberg, at Karoo Nights which you’ll find along the road east from the Gariep Dam, at Morning Glory with its suggestion of a rude awakening, and perhaps on Orange River Farm at the dam.
It will enrich your body and soul. You will love it. Guaranteed.

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