Leon Marshall takes a deep breath and sets off on a cycle trip with friends through the stunning north-eastern extreme of the Great Karoo…
Words: Leon Marshall
Pictures: Leon Marshall, Peter Sullivan, Paul Davies and David Southey
Let me say right away, I am no cyclist. The last time I rode a bicycle was more than three decades ago. They still had one gear then and braked on the back pedal. You could give somebody a lift on the carrier over the back wheel, or clip your bookcase or kosblik in it.
They had sizable, springy seats for saddles. The handlebars were set wide so you could clasp your hands behind your head and put your feet on them when showing off to the girls.
For some reason, thoughts about those times flit through my head as the saddle bites, and my legs seem to operate separately from my body as I look at the gravel road ahead, thinning into a strip that fades between the hills. But that’s the first day of our cycling trip.
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Day two of the Great Karoo cycling adventure
Already on the second day it starts getting better and more time can be spent enjoying the company and admiring the scenery rather than wondering what brought on this madness.
In fact, what has led to it is the celebration of the 65th birthday of my old friend and journalist colleague Peter Sullivan.
Others in our party are Alan Busuttil, Rusty and Paul Davis and Ann Bernstein. Peter makes a rule that we are only allowed ten minutes to talk about our aches and ailments.
It seems a bit heartless, but as it turns out the talk at stops along the way and at sundowner and meal times tends anyway to gravitate quickly to the extraordinary countryside and wildlife, the charming folk who receive us at the farmstead guest houses, and the hearty meals.
We also like exchanging the day’s riding experiences, such as seeing Paul shoot past at breakneck speed on badly rutted downhills and the women persistently overtaking us men on the uphills.
Paul explains the trick about these downhill exploits. “At all costs, keep the front wheel straight.” Rusty and Ann kindly acknowledge that it’s a highly regular gym regime that has given them the edge on the uphill.
In the beginning, there are attempts over the lunch and dinner tables to get serious exchanges of opinion going on matters of state. But it never really gets going and quickly lapses into banter.
The amazing views of the Great Karoo
The setting for our escapade is the north-eastern Great Karoo. How strange to think, while crossing the plains, dipping into the vales and traversing the rises of this arid land, that it once abounded with reptilian creatures wallowing among wondrous plants in steamy swamps.
Already on the way there, on the road from Steynsburg to Middelburg, two starkly beautiful koppies serve notice of the kind of scenery ahead.
They are named Teebus and Koffiebus, after the containers in which people used to keep their tea and coffee, although there are still such containers in many a kitchen or pantry in the area, I am sure.
Our first stay is at a sheep farm called Mount Melsetter Karoo House & Hunt. Owned by David Southey, a Johannesburg businessman who organises the cycling tours in collaboration with other establishments in the region. The farm and its guest house are run by his sister, Candy, and her husband, Mike Ferrar.
Peter’s birthday celebration, with champagne, is a jolly affair around the dinner table, under the steady gaze from a portrait on the wall, of a Southey forbear who pioneered the clan’s settlement in this far outback.
Day three of cycling the Tour de Sneeuberg
A ‘loosener’ ride the next day to warm the saddles and stretch the legs takes us to another sheep farm named Vriesfontein, for lunch under the garden trees.
That evening, dinner conversation is muted, as it also is in the vehicles the following morning that take us past Middelburg to a dirt road into the mountains. A touch of anxiety, perhaps.
This is the start of the Sneeuberg route, the name of which explains what happens in these parts in winter. In summer the same mountains shimmer in the heat of day.
It is the initial stretch of uphills, euphemistically referred to in the Southey route guide as ‘engaging’, that gnaws at the willpower.
As we puff round a bend, we unexpectedly come upon a Herbert Baker-style mansion. Across the road from it is a converted shearing shed with a sizeable pool, a fireplace with sofas, and a log table with a variety of exquisite salads for our lunch.
The farm, Gordonville, belongs to Charlotte Daneel, an arty personage whose furnishing and decoration of the 1925 house is renowned.
She is as committed to seeing the area’s natural beauty preserved and proudly told how local landowners have combined to form a 14 500ha conservancy called the Sneeuberg Nature Reserve that spans a fertile valley fringed by mountains up to 2 000 metres in height.
This explains the herds of springbok, eland, zebra, and some wildebeest, that entertain us along the way.
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A royal stay on our Karoo cycling tour
That night we stay at another nature lover’s retreat, named Bergplaas. It belongs to Princess Irene of the Netherlands, who bought it even though she only manages to visit occasionally. She did it, explains her manager, Wayne Maspero, “to give the land back to the land.”
In the late afternoon, Wayne lead us up a hill behind the old farmstead. Staring across a broad valley at the tapestry of light and shade from the setting sun, he asks, “Can we all just for a few moments close our eyes and be quiet?”
The idea is to make us truly connect with nature. It leaves us in contemplative mood as we trudge down the hill. What is it about mountains that they do this to you?
Jan Smuts in his famous Spirit of the Mountain speech at Maclear’s Beacon on Table Mountain said, ‘The mountain is not merely something externally sublime. It has a great historical and spiritual meaning for us. It stands for us as the ladder of life. Nay, more, it is the great ladder of the soul, and in a curious way the source of religion…’
Day 4: Nieu Bethesda
The next day we skirt the Kompasberg, at 2 505 metres the highest peak in the Eastern and Western Cape.
Then on to quaint Nieu Bethesda and its Owl House, Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre and, like an oasis to a tired cyclist, The Brewery, where lunch and a choice of home-brew beers puts us in excellent spirits for the rest of the day’s trip. This takes us to Weltevreden, yet another of the region’s stately farmsteads now doubling as a guest house.
The final leg: Graaff-Reinet
The final stretch of our journey is 56km, making it the longest, but it takes us on a slow downhill to Graaff-Reinet and a stay in the newly refurbished De Kothuize. We calculate we have all in all done about 170km over the four days.
It is a public holiday and the picturesque Karoo town is quiet. Ours was no Tour de France, but in we ride in peloton formation. Youngsters kicking a ball on the road make way, and they and others of the townsfolk sitting on their porches look on quizzically as we pedal by. Some smile, but there is no cheering.