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The Swartberg Pass MTB Trail

The Swartberg Pass MTB Trail

Black Mountain Magic

It’s a tough ride, but this week-long mountain bike tour through the Karoo is magic.

Even on the days when you're not climbing up a pass, the route is up and down so the tour requires a good level of fitness.

Half an hour in the saddle and I was already questioning my sanity and hoping that the sparkling waters of the Keur River, where we stopped to fill our water bottles, had healing qualities. Talk about starting the day with a bang – the 600-metre climb from George up the Montagu Pass had proved tough. My legs ached. I glanced covertly at the back-up vehicle, wondering if I could bear the shame of hitching a ride so early in the tour, but Tony Cook, our effervescent guide, followed my gaze. “It’s not as daunting as it looks,” he assured me, then considerately prolonged the rest stop by outlining the history of the pass.

Apparently the gravel road we were toiling up was one of the first wagon routes made over the Outeniqua Mountains, completed in 1847. I felt humbled at the thought of the tough pioneers that crossed this rugged mountain range and attacked the hill with renewed energy, buoyed by the increasingly spectacular views and Tony’s enthusiasm and encouragement. The sound of clapping put new life into my weary legs – some of our team had decided to take the easy route to the top and were cheering us on. I stood proud in my pedals and powered my way forward, imagining myself climbing the infamous L’Alpe d’Huez on the Tour de France.

What’s there to see?

Suddenly we were at the top of the pass with the majestic Outeniquas towering around us. Despite the proximity to George and the busy towns of the Garden Route we felt deep in the wilderness here. The swooping downhill on the other side made the effort of the climb worthwhile. We left behind the fynbos-covered slopes of the Garden Route and cruised down past fields of hops, over the R62 and onto the Paardepoort road, a long stretch of undulating gravel that winds through the arid, rocky ‘badlands’ of the Klein Karoo.

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The place had a bit of a Wild West feel. Ostrich farms lined the road and the big birds gathered to check us out when we stopped for snack breaks or to pick up their feathers. Ostrich products provide much-needed income for the people of the area but the big birds destroy the land – the fields are just dirt. We continued past the little church on the hill above Dysseldorp before cruising to our overnight cottages on a working farm nestled at the foothills of the Swartberg Mountains. Seventy five kilometres done and dusted. Not so bad after all!

And the route?

The seven-day, six-night Black Mountain Magic Tour takes its name from the major mountain range that you cross several times over the course of the week – the Swartberg, or Black Mountain. It’s a delightful journey that starts on the coast and takes you through the semi-arid Karoo and some of the loveliest mountain scenery in South Africa before ending at Calitzdorp, famous for its port. And while riding the iconic passes is a highlight, the tour incorporates game viewing, visits to quaint villages, historical asides and some great hospitality so it’s much more than just a physical challenge.

If you plan to ride the whole route it’s a serious undertaking, but while there are some steep climbs every day, none of the riding is technical so it’s doable for any reasonably fit mountain biker. And you can always do what we did and pile the kids and those wanting a break from the saddle into the back-up vehicle. There’s nothing like having an entourage cheering you on as you grind the gears.

On day two we were back in the saddle early, ready for the undulating ride to the Swartberg Private Game Reserve. Once inside, our support crew hopped on bikes and joined us for a leisurely game ride where we had good sightings of giraffe, impala, wildebeest, zebra and eland. A dip in the pool, cold beer and a home-cooked feast eaten around a log fire rounded off a fantastic day and we retired early. Day three was going to be another tough one.

By now we had found our mountain legs and, engaging granny gear, maintained a steady pace on the 10-kilometre climb up the switchbacks on the southern side of the Swartberg Pass. Completed in 1888, this amazing road rises to a height of 1 585 metres above sea level. The views over the jagged peaks and deeply incised gorges of the Swartberg range were breathtaking, so we lingered before speeding down the other side. Tony called a halt at a road on the left, about halfway down the pass. The famous Otto du Plessis Pass leads into the hidden valley of Gamkaskloof, or Die Hel as it’s often known, and is hard-core mountain biking country. I’d heard many an epic tale about the loose, rocky descent, the route of the famous ‘To Hell and Back’ MTB race, so was quite happy to be continuing on the main drag to our home for the night, Dennehof Country House, just outside the quaint town of Prince Albert.

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On the fourth day there’s no vehicle support on the route, so those who wanted to take it easy, relaxed and explored Prince Albert while the riders were transferred to the entrance gate of the Swartberg Nature Reserve, near the top of the pass. From here it was a fairly demanding 54-kilometre ride on a rough jeep trail to the Gouekrans mountain hut and back, before cruising down to Dennehof for a sumptuous lunch and a lazy afternoon. After a superb meal that evening of succulent Karoo lamb, washed down with a good bottle of red wine, I crawled under the covers of my four-poster bed feeling like the queen of the mountains.

Day five was another big day with roughly 1 400 metres of ascent as we retraced the route up the northern side of the Swartberg Pass and back down the other side to the Swartberg Private Nature Reserve. All that remained on the final day was an easy ride along the undulating Groenfontein gravel road to Calitzdorp. We sped along in a peloton, revelling in our newfound fitness, and made it to Calitzdorp by mid-morning, leaving plenty of time to indulge in a little port tasting and soak in the warm baths. It was a fitting end to the week.

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In a Nutshell

Up to it?

This is a non-technical tour that is suitable for strong, fit riders of all ages and levels of experience. If you’re tired, don’t feel like cycling or simply want to come along for the ride, you can jump on the back-up vehicle.

When to go

The tour is offered year-round, but March / April or October / November are probably the best months. Summers are very hot, and in winter there’s often snow on the mountains.

Bookings

Tony Cook Adventures: +27 (0) 82 783 8392; [email protected]

Did you know?

  • The rugged Swartberg Pass, built by Thomas Bain in 1888, is one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world. And it’s certainly a good challenge for any keen mountain biker. The author Lawrence Green declared: “I have travelled only one road in my lifetime more dramatic, and that was the 15 000-foot pass beyond Darjeeling that leads into Tibet.”
  • The pass was declared a South African National Monument in its centenary year is a Provincial Heritage Site.

Photography Shaen Adey

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