Bright eyed and bushy trailed is exactly how you’ll feel in a mountain-biking, hiking and nature-loving paradise on the R62.
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Alan van Gysen
“My dad lived at the foot of the Touwsberg,” says Freddie la Grange, founder of Touwsberg Private Game & Nature Reserve. “My mother lived on the other side of the mountain, so when he started courting her he would cycle over there to visit. She was one of seven sisters so I guess he was spoilt for choice. But it was worth the ride!” He laughs.
In those days people married within cycling distance, and the bicycle was their form of transport. For many locals it still is today. Not for us city slickers. We have brought our mountain bikes and hiking boots along for a weekend of exploring the private game and nature reserve, a shared ownership development about 50km north-east of Barrydale in the Little Karoo.
Our temporary home is Ankerbos, a three-bedroom cottage that is one of the older and most affordable accommodation options here, where there is everything from basic to fancy designer homes. All are off the grid, with solar power, coal stoves and windpumps. “It’s back to basics here,” says Freddie. “We don’t even know when Eskom is load shedding.”
Freddie, his son Hugo and one of their managers, Bruwer de Jager, are competitive endurance cyclists, and the trails that they have opened on the reserve are becoming very popular with weekend riders in the Cape.
The accessibility of the reserve and the variety of tracks are big attractions. In addition to the dedicated trails, there is a three-tier, interlinked system of roads – gravel roads suitable for any car (or off-road bike), jeep tracks for higher clearance vehicles, and proper 4×4 routes for those wanting an off-road experience. It makes Touwsberg the perfect spot for DIY adventure. You can do your own game drives, grind your 4×4 gears or hike and bike as you please.
“Freddie was always a big runner with several Comrades and Two Oceans Marathons under his belt, but when we started setting up the reserve in 2006 we all got involved in mountain biking,” Hugo explains. As a result building trails became an integral part of the development of the reserve.
Currently there are four purpose-built, single-track trails linking the existing game-viewing jeep tracks on Touwsberg. This makes up a total 50km of hiking, mountain biking and off-road running track, which is constantly being extended.
There is plenty more challenging riding nearby, with at least 200km of gravel roads to explore. Circumnavigating the mountain is a great ride of about 75km, and you can ride to Ladysmith, Laingsburg, Touwsrivier, Van Wyksdorp and Montagu without touching tar. “Our plan is to run mountain-bike training camps that take advantage of all the riding opportunities and accommodation,” says Hugo.
Until ten years ago Freddie was a professor at the SA Military Academy in Saldanha Bay but Touwsberg remained a frequent weekend and holiday visit.
The family stayed in a clay-brick, thatched farmhouse, an old labourer’s cottage they had renovated. “We would come to the farm from Saldanha at weekends and in the holidays, and run wild in our veldskoens trying to hunt with slingshots,” says Hugo.
Originally a sheep farm, Touwsberg was rezoned as a nature reserve more than a decade ago. Freddie bought 18 farms in total, took down the fences and stocked the reserve with game, which has thrived.
Our early ride the following morning is full of game sightings – oryx lumbering up the hill, big herds of skittish springbok, and giraffe and zebra. It turns out that Touwsberg has one of the biggest herds of Cape mountain zebra under private ownership in South Africa.
As we follow Hugo along the moderately technical Gannaleegte trail, we pass two men, Johan Daniels and Boy Visagie, who are cutting a new section of track. Johan is the daredevil of the team, now the trails specialist. Boy is the horseman and they work as a team. Boy checks the reserve then radios Johan if he needs help.
“We send Johan in if we need pipes set up on steep slopes or down waterfalls,” Hugo tells me. “He’s also a good mountain biker which is a big bonus – technically pretty competent and super fit. Recently, while doing errands on his very basic bicycle, he rode 180km through the farms from Anysberg to Ladismith.”
I ask if it strikes him as odd that we visitors cycle just for fun? “Lekker om te sien dat mense dit kan geniet (Good to see that people can enjoy themselves),” Johan replies. And we are certainly enjoying the fruits of his hard labour. The trails are varied and stunning.
Johan explains that it’s easy to place the trails. “They follow existing game paths – animals always take the best line. We just look for the spoor evidence then improve the trail as necessary and mark it with cairns. If it’s not obvious then we line the route with old branches and rocks.”
When we return after our two-hour spin around the reserve, Maria Lombaard is cleaning the cottage. “Maria was my second mother,” says Freddie. “She came to work for my father when she was 14 – not much older than I was.”
Maria is shy but gradually opens up. She’s now 69, she whispers, so she can’t go up the mountain any more. But until recently she would go up in October to harvest the honeybush tea that grows naturally on the summit slopes. When Hugo came to the reserve Maria explained where to find the tea bushes. Now, every season, he leads a hike up there during harvest time. “It’s a fairly nondescript-looking bush,” Hugo explains, “with little yellow flowers that give off the scent of honey. It’s a stiff hike but it’s very rewarding to be able to collect this home-grown product. We give our harvested leaves to Maria, who then dries the tea in the oven before it’s brewed like moerkoffie.”
I ask Maria if she approves of the changes she has seen on Touwsberg. “Dis pragtig (It’s beautiful),” she assures me. She particularly likes the animals that she sees on her way to and from work: giraffe, bontebok, eland and other animals that were never there before.
In the afternoon we take a long hike along the Jakkalsplaat trail with Freddie, his wife Ingrid and their farm manager Johan Botha and his wife, Helen. “Do you recognise Johan?” Ingrid questions. “He was the farmer from Sutherland on Kyknet TV’s Boer Soek ’n Vrou.” I have to admit to not knowing about this Afrikaans dating programme, but it seems to have worked: Johan and Helen are clearly star-struck. Curious, I want to hear more: a farmer signing up to find a wife in such a public space must be quite brave.
“I would never have thought of it, but my aunt phoned me and said that Johan was ‘everything I’d ever wanted in
a man’,” says Helen. “So I wrote to him. And she was right, he was. I was very lucky that he selected me. Johan moved here from Sutherland and now we’re married.” The conversation has brought us to a halt and we sit almost teary-eyed at the romantic story.
It’s September and the fynbos is wearing its most colourful cloak, the veld is covered with carpets of Namaqua-style daisies and bright pink and purple vygies. I find it hard to believe that we’re in the arid Karoo. “Well, we’re in the transition zone between the Karoo and Succulent Karoo so the vegetation is impressive, particularly at this time of year,” Ingrid explains as we wander up behind our cottage to the shaded dell and waterfall of Mooikloof. “This is ‘the boardroom’. If we have weddings or groups we often bring them up here for a picnic.”
While picnics, game drives and other activities can be organised on request, Hugo says typical visitors don’t want to be entertained: they bring their own toys and want quality family time away from the distractions of the city.
As we walk up to the koppie behind our cottage for sundowners, I relate to that. From our rocky perch we have views over the Karoo. The last rays of sun light up the distant cliffs on the other side of the R62 and the sense of space is incredible. Darkness is marked by the call of nightjars and a quiet veld lit only by the moon and stars. Whether you want to ride, walk, take a game drive or simply sit on your stoep, Touwsberg is a great escape.
In a Nutshell
- Up to it? There are hiking, mountain biking and running trails for enthusiasts of all ages, fitness and abilities, so this is a great destination for families and mixed interest groups. Since the dedicated hiking and MTB trails follow game paths, there’s a good chance of sighting game en route. In order to keep access exclusive no day visitors are allowed, but overnight guests have access to all the trails on the reserve.
- When to go: This is a year-round destination but it gets very hot in summer, while winters can be bitterly cold. Spring and autumn are wonderful times to be in the Karoo.
- Bookings and info: 028 551 2172, 082 823 9777, 082 928 4743, [email protected]