This story was updated on 26 March 2019.
? 9-minute read
‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,’ wrote Ernest Hemingway. With this in mind, Matthew Holt signed up for a cycle tour around Bedford in the Eastern Cape, a part of the country he’d read a lot about, but never been to…
The 180km off-road Bedford Cycle Safari is typically done in two or three days. The group I went with pushed the envelope to four, which didn’t win any medals, but did allow more time to visit historic sites, take in the scenery and enjoy the local hospitality.
Get set. Go!
Starting at Request Farm, the first 10km were along working farm roads, blocked by truculent cattle that only grudgingly gave way. We discovered the best way was to charge them at speed, a ploy of which Hemingway would have approved, if not their owner.
After passing through Bedford, and a brief spell on tar, we turned into the Baviaans River Conservancy. A short, sharp climb over Wienand’s Nek pitched us into the heart of this rugged valley. It was here, in 1820, that a group of Scottish emigrants led by Robert Pringle arrived. Having survived the long hazardous boat journey (the ship bringing the second group sank) and settled in their new home, virtually the first thing they did was erect a church. Presumably, these days, a football pitch and pub would rival in priority. In the deserted ruins of Glen Lynden village was the shell of South Africa’s oldest Presbyterian church, built by the settlers in 1828. A Dutch Reformed church stood opposite, built in 1874 when the congregation split. Religious differences aside, the Scottish settlers prospered here and put down roots, with several farms in the valley still bearing the Pringle name.
Further along the valley, at Eildon, another small church houses the remains of the most famous Scottish settler, Thomas Pringle, one of Robert’s sons. Ironically, Thomas was an abject failure at both farming and settling, sailing home after just six years. It was in London that he made a more lasting mark, as a leading member of the anti-slavery movement. Thanks to their effort, slavery was abolished in the British Empire in August 1834.
Four months later, Thomas Pringle died of tuberculosis, aged 45. Originally buried in England, he was re-interred at Eildon in 1970. It’s not a bad spot to end up, the beauty of the setting giving this simple stone building more grandeur than many elaborate cathedrals.
Although the riding wasn’t technical – on gravel roads, rather than single track – there was still some hard graft, grinding up the so-called Devil, with 1 200m of aggregate ascent concentrated in the first half of the trail. It was always a relief to crest a hill and find our support vehicle waiting.
Aside from ferrying our bags between overnight stops, the support team was on hand with cold drinks, roadside snacks, moral support and, more crucially, spare inner tubes. In his eulogy to cycle touring, Hemingway had glossed over the inconvenience of punctures.
A bloody story
In addition to hosting the arrival of the Scottish settlers, the Baviaans River Valley also staged a key act in the Slagtersnek Rebellion in 1815. Between Glen Lynden and Eildon, we found the grave of Frederik Bezuidenhout and, a few kilometres further on, another memorial marking the spot of his actual demise. It was a pretty spot, set atop a sandstone boulder overlooking the Baviaans River, although there was little else pleasant in the story.
Bezuidenhout was a tough frontier farmer who, depending on your take, was either the archetypical free spirit against the machine or a stubborn bully who tyrannised his coloured servants. After he’d ignored several court orders, a troop of soldiers was dispatched to arrest him. Things sort of escalated, a fire-fight broke out and Bezuidenhout was shot dead amid the boulders.
Things escalated when his brother, Johannes, tried to incite an uprising against British rule. Although the ensuing rebellion quickly fizzled out, Johannes was shot dead and five other ringleaders were publicly hanged at Slagtersnek, about 40km outside Bedford. Just to complete the spectacle, when the trapdoor was sprung, four of the ropes snapped, requiring the condemned men to be strung up and hung again, in front of their watching families.
On a more cheery note, at Craig Rennie Farm, just beyond Eildon, we reached our first overnight stop. After 66km in the saddle, there was no need to stint at dinner. We spent the evening around the fire, listening to tales of life in the valley – of taking myopic Americans out hunting, of bachelor farmers racing into Bedford whenever a new schoolmistress arrived, of colliding with kudu at night and having to sleep in a buckled car. It was a very different life to being an auditor or lawyer.
The second day took us over De Beers Pass, at 1 677m the high point of our route. Then we turned south and headed into the Koonap River Valley, where the weather changed quickly, from cold damp mist to beating sunshine. And the terrain changed quickly too, from reminding me of the Drakensberg to looking more like the Karoo.
The second night was spent at Redcliffe Country House, on a sheep and cattle farm. It was lambing season and we would regularly find our progress interrupted by noisy flocks of nervous sheep, accompanied by bossy collie dogs and gum-booted shepherds. At one point, I got caught in a perfect storm, between two large flocks heading in opposite directions, when even the dogs gave up trying to instill any order.
It’s all downhill from here
If the first two days largely involved climbing, the third day brought reward, with almost 40km of uninterrupted descent. No matter how old you are, few things beat the sheer exhilaration of tearing downhill with the breeze in your face and your front wheel leaping over runnels. Provided, of course, you don’t crash.
We spent our final night at Cavers, a magnificent 19th century stone country house. The owner’s forbears included a missionary who’d come out from Scotland with David Livingstone and a victim of the Boer War. The history of these valleys is fascinating, if also often harsh. Cycling around the grounds, we saw merino sheep, angora goats and, rather surprisingly, a small cricket ground. But the biggest surprise was the garden, with its cascading flowers in bloom. Each year, at the end of October, the farms in this area open their gardens to the public and Bedford suddenly becomes much like a miniature Chelsea Flower Show. It seemed incredible that in such a remote place, where ordinary daily life requires such planning, so much care should be lavished on choreographing flowerbeds and manicuring lawns.
The final day saw a relatively brisk, flat 30km pedal back to Request Farm, via a stop in Bedford for celebratory milkshakes. Even if we hadn’t set any speed records, we felt we deserved them. And we also felt a far deeper empathy for this part of the country than if we’d flashed through in a car. Hemingway was right.
Up to it?
Although much of the first half is uphill so a fair level of fitness is required, the tour is not technical (though someone in the group must be able to do basic repairs!) One of its selling points is that it’s flexible. Fit riders wanting to get some mileage can ride it in two days, while those wanting a more leisurely ride can spread it out over three or four days.
When to go
The tour is available year round. There may be snow on the mountains in winter and in summer the Baviaans River can be a raging torrent after a thunderstorm, stranding riders between flooded bridges.
Where to stay
Bedford Cycle Safari
Words Matthew Holt
Photography Matthew Holt & Ilona Muller