My bum was sore, my knees were knackered and my calves felt as if they had just been mugged, but nonetheless I was still beaming from ear to ear.
I had just peddled 350 grueling kilometers through South Africa’s Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve on dirt roads and I was feeling as if I had conquered the world (and seen some lovely scenery and wildlife to boot en-route)
The fact that the organizers had had to put my bike on their vehicle’s roof and drive me up most of the steeper sections was neither here nor there.
Without their assistance I would have probably had a heart attack.
The little known Baviaanskloof which is situated in the Eastern Cape is a stunning place when viewed from the silence of a saddle. The fresh air sweeping through your hair, the mud splattering up your back, the bees bouncing off your face; they all combine to make for a wonderful experience. And being a mountainous region, the downhill’s are fantastic fun and the up hills are not , but a real biker loves such challenges and laughs in the face of serious inclines. I however, am not a real biker. Hence the welcomed rescue service.
The course along which I had traveled was a circular fully catered and supported affair with riders spending their evenings in pre-erected tents or on local farms. Food was prepared by a team of camp chefs, back up vehicles were supplied and medics on quads were always on hand should anyone have careened off a hairy hairpin (of which there were many in the Baviaanskloof)
All a biker need worry about is the actual biking. Everything else was taken care of.
That didn’t mean it was plain sailing though. The Baviaanskloof has more ups and downs than a bipolar alcoholic and as such, one really needs a certain level of biking fitness and finesse to attempt it.
“The medics have a defibrillator” said Linette Swart, proprietor of Mountain Biking South Africa “But If you get flattened by a black rhino I’m not sure if they have the necessary equipment to inflate you again. So please, Just keep an eye out for them”
I made a mental note to do just that.
“And the Buffalo too” she added as an afterthought
Should be exciting I thought to myself. And indeed it was.
We had began our two wheel odyssey in the peaceful and quaint rural setting of Patensie; a citrus growing town nestled into the foothills of the Eastern Cape’s Cockscomb Mountain.
The town (more of a village really) is set amongst a backdrop of pretty orchard groves, and we were lucky enough to find ourselves cycling through it during the harvest season.
Teams of rotund coloured ladies dressed in blue overalls and armed with picking baskets came out from the orchards and onto the road to cackle at us in Afrikaans.
“What’s so funny?” I asked one of my fellow riders as we cycled past
“Oh, they have never seen men wearing lycra tights before. They’re calling us Moffies”
I presumed that this was a derogatory term, but the ladies were smiling and it lifted my heart to see that my bright orange cycling shorts had given them some comical respite from toiling the fields.
As we left the sound of their hysterical shrieking behind us, the rural landscape soon gave way to rugged and untamed beauty that is the hallmark of the Baviaanskloof mega reserve.
The Baviaanskloof (which means valley of baboons) stands at nearly 200km2 and is one of the largest wilderness areas in South Africa. Its a huge expanse of mountains and valleys covering both the Kouga and Baviaans ranges with no less than seven terrestrial biomes represented within its boundaries.
There are great swaths of fragrantly floral fynbos (a sort of heather/grassland habitat) where one often sees beautiful sunbirds feeding from gloriously flamboyant protea flowers, and there are forests and thickets and rolling plains too.
At its heart, on the only road that bisects the park, there is an agricultural enclave where hardy rural folk are increasingly turning towards tourism as an alternative to farming.
“In summer there is drought. In winter there are floods” Linette told me as we made our way over the first set of mountains and down into the flat arid lands of the Great Karoo.
“There are frosts and sometimes deep snow and there are also heat waves that all combine to make the Baviaans region and very hard place for a farmer to eek out a living”
Fortunately, since the park was awarded World Heritage Site status in 2004, an ever increasing number of tourists (so far mostly South Africans) have been visiting the valley to enjoy its spectacular views, its scenic roads and its many gorgeous gorges and rivers.
A lot of the locals are now running BnBs rather than farming, and that in the long run is much better for the wildlife and the people of the area.
And as for wildlife, well, there aren’t any lions and elephants or hyena, not yet at least, but the Eastern Cape Parks board (the organization responsible for looking after the Baviaanskloof) have recently reintroduced black rhino, buffalo and the highly endangered Cape Mountain Zebra.
One day, it is hoped that the park will once again host the full compliment of wildlife; lions included, and that’s something which will make an already exciting cycle route absolutely awesome (if not a little scary)
As it was through, on the first few days of our journey at least, we didn’t have to worry about mishaps with startled wildlife because our route took us through the agricultural sectors.
Sheep were a problem, and on a few occasions I found myself gridlocked as farm workers steered their flocks down the middle of the dusty road upon which we were riding. It was charming though even though they did stick their horns into my spokes.
Their bleating reminded me of the ladies laughter back at Patensie
As is common in the Great Karoo, little Dutch style white farm houses dotted a massively open landscape where giant aloes reached for a very big sky.
Towering metal wind pumps decorated the scenery like oversized metal flowers, and flocks of domesticated ostriches drifted across the grand vistas like two legged dinosaurs.
Everything is big out there in the Karoo; even the farmers, the majority of which are built like elephant seals due to their fondness of meat.
They watched us with perplexed expressions on their faces as we cycled past their farms.
“Moffies!” I heard one of them say to his friend before turning back to the usual topic of rugby scores, God and the benefits of eating steak seven times a day.
Some nights we camped in our tents and drank hot soup around an open fire under a beautiful starry sky, whilst on others we stayed on quaint farms, the owners of which were clearly not used to seeing visitors this far out from civilization.
One elderly chap with bottle bottom glasses came to my tent in the morning and tried to sell me a tortoise.
“They are very nice baked on an open fire and served with hot sauce” he told me as if this were as normal as eating boiled eggs….which I suppose to him it was.
I politely declined and had porridge instead.
The final leg of our five day odyssey took us through the eastern sectors of the Baviaanskloof; a pristine nature reserve where the only man made object one will see is the road upon which we were cycling.
Mountains of the most startling reds and oranges loomed on every side and evergreen forests formed tunnels through which we careened.
The hills were both exhausting and exhilarating and the added presence of large animal poop liberally splattered across the road made for overworked adrenal glands and increased palpitations. It was fun though and the more focused (or perhaps exhausted) bikers amongst us failed even to notice a pair of black rhinos who stood at the side of the road looking unsure as to whether or not to be offended by us.
Thankfully, we were moving at such high speeds that by the time they commenced to rampaging, we were long long gone.
Sadly, it was just a matter of time before we had done full circle and arrived back at the sleepy little town of Patensie where the citrus picking ladies had another good laugh at out attire.
Group photos were taken and champagne was supped before we all rode off into the sunset.
CAN’T BIKE WONT BIKE (BOX)
The Baviaanskloof is far too beautiful to be limited to hard core bikers only and in fact there’s plenty to do for everyone.
It helps to have a vehicle with high clearance though as the road can often be…. Challenging
The real 4×4 fundi will find many private and public roads (most of which are associated with the Kloof’s numerous guest farms)
The Baviaans route is also super popular with motorcyclists and you will often see clans of bearded hells angles sipping tea at one of the many local restaurants or going all gushy at the numerous viewpoints.
Hikers fear not. There are loads of places to explore on foot from beautiful lush tropicalesque slot kloofs to rambling mountain fynbos trails.
Most guest farms in the kloof have hiking trails on them.
Visit the Baviaans Tourism web site for bookings and options
contact www.sahikes.co.za for more info on walks throughout the country.
Additional Information on fully catered bike tours around South Africa