There is no better way to experience the great outdoors than across the bars of a gravel bike. Wide-sky vistas, meandering back roads, lungs full of fresh air and ever-changing landscapes. Join Jacques Marais as he investigates the allure of bike touring.
An eerie mist veils the landscape, obscuring the vertiginous drop to the plains below Skilpad Rest Camp. We had arrived in the Namaqua National Park the evening before and have no idea what awaits along the jeep-track descent from the high Kamiesberg Plateau. What I do know is that whoever said Namaqualand is flat was talking utter rubbish. Every now and then a momentary gap in the morning fog reveals the scrubland unfolding towards the West Coast and it is abundantly clear that a white-knuckle descent awaits.
“I always knew tackling the Bikamino route would be an adventure of note,” I think as I click into my pedal and push off onto this exhilarating ride along the Namaqua Coastal Route. What awaits is 900km of free-range cranking through some of South Africa’s most desolate wilderness areas, and what better way to start this than with a downhill!
Few things can be more fun than bombing a gravel track at high speed, with your ears pinned back and a dust-eating smile on your face. That is, until the sun breaks through the clouds and you realise that at some stage what goes down must go back up.
Right now there’s no reason to make mountains out of molehills, though, so instead I click up another gear and holler a loud “Yee-ha!” as my front wheel skitters into a hairpin bend. Recent rains have transformed the Sandveld section of the Namaqua park into myriad tones of green and amber, all bathed in the champagne light that characterises winter in the Cape.
Here and there, herds of eland and hartebeest graze dreamily upon the minimalist slopes and once or twice I stop to watch a geometric tortoise scuttle across the road. This gives me a chance to not only breathe in the bracing air – spiced with the aroma of a magnificent array of fynbos herbs – but also scout out a good coffee brew stop.
Many people visit the park during the flower season, but they miss out on so much. It is here that the succulent Karoo merges with mountain renosterveld and come winter, the scent of fynbos becomes infused with the loamy tones of pelargoniums and flowering bulb species of the Iridaceae, Amaryllidaceae and other families. It’s an intoxicating fragrance, especially when you’re the only human being pedalling in this vast expanse.
The Bikamino concept arose on a ride just like this, when the guys from EcoBound started bandying about the idea of a ‘spiritual bike journey’. I know, as I was on that ride with them. The name is a word play on the amalgamation of ‘bike’ and ‘camino’, in reference to the many ‘pilgrim hikes’ so popular in Europe. Riders can sign up for anything from three to 12 days of bike-packing, with or without back-up and solo or as a group.
At the heart of the Bikamino is a 900km route meandering along endless gravel roads, with low traffic volumes, agoraphobia-inspiring plains and a range of quirky accommodation establishments, making for achievable and safe riding. The circular layout means you can start on any of the route nodes, while overnight stops allow you to pedal light and free, so even e-bikers can let loose upon these expansive Northern Cape plains, either with the assistance of a local back-up guide or with their own support vehicle.
Here’s a plan if you’re in the mood for a quickie Bikamino taster: opt for the three-day circuit incorporating the most accessible segment of the route. Set off from Okiep along a 60km meander to Naries, with a solid 1,460m of ascent along the route (Spektakel Pass must get an honourable mention here). Day 2 begins an 84km crank to Kookfontein (1,272m ascent), bombing you with the insane scenery and sweeping gravel bends of Wildeperdehoek Pass. Finally, on Day 3, you will pedal to the windswept West Coast at Hondeklipbaai, with 62km and 615m ascent in your legs as you tuck into a seafood lunch at Die Rooi Spinnekop!
Check out www.bikamino.com for more information.
More bike tour destinations
For some the Bikamino may seem a bit remote, so here’s a selection of alternative gravel travel options across South Africa.
Starting and ending at the Fairy Knowe Hotel in Wilderness, the 500km route passes through indigenous forests, crossing the Outeniqua and Swartberg mountains twice and taking in no fewer than a dozen passes and a handful of poorts. The route is nontechnical,
using graded dirt roads that meander through breathtaking scenery, with excellent accommodation, good food and great company as bonuses. For an interesting twist, on the leg from De Rust to Prince Albert you can choose to ride either through Meiringspoort or over Swartberg Pass.
This endurance event rates as one of South Africa’s top 100-mile races, but the addition of a 200-miler has tempted the organisers to now present this as a solo 365 adventure too. The terrain suits both mountain and gravel bikers in equal measure: start off in scenic Swellendam before you meander through a green-and-gold patchwork of canola and wheat fields. En route you’ll pass the historic Malgas ferry and breathtaking Grootvadersbosch Conservancy, with three overnight stops earmarked at establishments along the way.
Riders keen to combine singletrack as part of their bike touring mission won’t go wrong if they head to 3Rivers Trails in the Eastern Cape. Base yourself in the Crossways region and then daisy-chain your way onto the gruelling Trans Elands route, winding inland from Jeffreys Bay via the breathtaking Kouga landscape. Revel in more than 100km of singletrack on day 1, then face the 160km ‘Xtreme’ with a 3,000m elevation gain on the Elands River back roads. This humdinger sets you up for a chilled final day of play on the Woodridge College and Jbay Bike Park trails.
The social ‘GravelGrinder’ series is based on a model of a three-day cycling and culinary adventure. Organiser John Swanepoel has refined this into a tried-and-tested format, with hundreds of cyclists and their companions subscribing to ‘one fine grind’. The leisurely rides take place in the Karoo and the Camdeboo regions, with a back-up vehicle, comfortable accommodation and delectable meals as part of the package.
This brand-new gravel circuit on the Swartland plains near Piketberg allows you to experience everything from gravel roads bisecting wheat fields to the steep passes of the Piket Bo-Berg. Riders can crank the 300km route over anything from two to four days, again with a number of self-catering and B&B accommodation establishments to choose from along the way. Hidden valleys, West Coast views, high-mountain heath and searing summer days make this different from any other bike tour out there.
The natural splendour of the Swartberg region is truly tough to beat. The same can be said for the eponymous Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo, a festival of gravel riding that starts and finishes in the quaint dorp of Prince Albert, one of the Karoo’s most exquisite towns. This 170km-plus route encompasses three gravel sectors and passes with gradients of up to 16% in places. The region is perfect for bike touring, with loads of superb accommodation options, wineries and game farms to tap into if you want to extend your stay.
The rise of the e-bike
Basic e-biking technology, known as PAS (pedal-assist system), is built around an integrated motor driving powerful magnets to assist the rider as soon as pedalling starts. Riders can set the level of assistance by means of a range of excellent apps that enable them to control power, speed, distance, heart rate and ride duration. In most First World markets, e-bike sales now outstrip those of regular bikes. There is no arguing that electric bicycles allow a wider range of riders to enjoy the trails, keeping more people healthy and enabling cyclists of varying fitness levels to ride together.