The ALL RIDE crew of Doug Bird, Nic Lamond, and myself (J-Dogg) embarked on a rather lengthy gravel journey from Calitzdorp over into the Karoo and then down to Knysna. This was big. Maybe not for Lamond, but certainly for Doug and myself. Watch the journey in the video below or read on to hear about the experience!
So what is the Karoo Crossing and why did we do it? The Karoo Crossing is part of the Cape Cycle Routes initiative which has mapped out some stunning bike tour routes around the Western Cape. This is the newest route addition and we were given the opportunity to ride it so that we could share the experience with you and show you how to do it!
Like any adventure, it starts with a plan. The Karoo Crossing route, as laid out on the Cape Cycle Routes site, is a 358km ride with over 7000m of elevation and is recommended to be done over 4-6 days. The route is rated 8/10 for difficulty. Doug wasn’t aware of the 4-6 day recommendation and so from the get-go, we had a 3-day ride planned. That strategy, or lack thereof, set us up for some large days on the bike!
We arrived in Calitzdorp the night before we would start our ride to make sure we could get a good night’s rest and hit the road early in the morning. The drive to Calitzdorp from Cape Town was stunning and got us excited for the days ahead! There was certainly also some trepidation building as we saw the Swartberg mountains rising up to the North East, knowing that a real challenge awaited us on the first day’s ride.
After the cruise through the farmlands and mountain passes that lead us towards Calitzdorp, we settled into our accommodation at Die Stoep ( which was a great find that we would recommend! ) and ran through the standard gear checks ahead of the ride. Our crew of 3 riders plus camera man, Dimitri, enjoyed a good ol’ braai and potato bake for dinner and with full stomachs, we hit the sack.
Up just before 6, we planned to get on the bikes early and start chipping away at the kilometres. We made our way out of town at 7 am and headed towards the looming mountains to the north. We hit gravel within a kilometre of our journey and begun working our way up and over the rather punchy “rolling hills” that Nic had warned us about. Nic is something of a human encyclopedia, being very familiar with these kinds of tours as well as the area we would be riding through. He brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the crew, making him a real asset on our journey!
The first 60km of the day would get us to the base of Swartberg Pass and our lunch stop at Kobus se Gat. It wasn’t long on the journey before we had our first blunder. We turned South about 2OO km too soon and spend 5km enjoying a wide-open road and high average speeds before realising that something was wrong because Dimitri in the support vehicle hadn’t caught up to us after stopping to film. It appeared that he knew the route better. I, apparently, was responsible for navigation and so took ownership of that error! We retraced our route and were soon back on track for Swartberg. Turns out that the left-hand turn we missed was even more inconspicuous in reality than it was on the map, where I already hadn’t been aware of its existence. To add to that, the signage that marks the turn-off was lying face down on the ground, not helping anyone. After a bit of a laugh and some light verbal abuse, we continued on towards lunch.
We arrived at Kobus se Gat to find it, unfortunately, closed. They were probably not expecting much traffic during the mid-week as it appears to still be going on weekends. We made ourselves some sandwiches with our supplies in the car, refilled the water bottles, and enjoyed a moment of chill before taking on the mighty Swartberg Pass.
The pass was built in 1888 by Sir Thomas Bain. It is 24km long, about 9km to summit, and would have us climbing over 800m up to the summi 1575 m above sea level. We felt every one of those meters. It wasn’t impossible though, and our weekly rides winching heavy enduro bikes up steep climbs certainly paid dividends, but it was a challenge. As with the rest of the ride, we took a measured approach so as not to blow the legs off when there were many miles still to be covered over the next few days. Doug and I made full use of the wide gear range on our marathon bikes while Nic had to grind up at a quite a pace, being on a gravel bike with a huge 42T chainring up front!
Soaking in the views on the way up the pass and our stop at the summit was easily a highlight of the whole trip! I was especially blown away by the landscape and geology on the Northern side of the pass. Massive Quartz cliffs towering over us as we rode through deep rifts in the mountains, it was breathtaking. The descent towards Prince Albert was wild! Flat out on the gravel road and skidding into corners! Plenty of laughs and close calls to keep the spirits high after a tough ascent.
With the pass behind we were home free to Prince Albert. We pulled into the first lunch spot in town that we saw, The Lazy Lizard, and put away some quality burgers and milkshakes!
Nic had organised our stay at the Karoo Khaya in Prince Albert and we were really impressed with the experience. The spot has a quaint courtyard and comfortable living spaces. A hearty braai for dinner was just what we needed after our first day in the saddle. With the usual chirps around the fire and some banter over a few beers, we were really settling into our journey. We switched between moments of trepidation and blissful ignorance about the mileage we had set out for ourselves to take on the next day.
As per the previous day, we were up around 5:30am in order to hit the road early. The morning routine was pretty simple. Out of bed, oats for brekkie, kit up and check over the bikes, and then we saddled up!
We backtracked about 5km out of Prince Albert and rolled past the turnoff to Swartberg Pass which we had exited from the previous day. The first 50km of the route was tarred road without too much traffic and the miles flew by. Nic Lamond, the Minister of Power, lead the pack while Doug managed traffic from the rear and I took responsibility for getting us lost.
Just before we would reach the town of Klaarstroom, we turned right onto gravel and watched the average speed decline. A quick refuel was in order as we had been on the bikes for about 2 hours by now. After some snacking and refilling water bottles we set about exploring the farmlands to the South East of Klaarstroom. We passed by little pockets of green land in the Karoo veld. Plenty of sheep and a few Blue Cranes were sighted as we chugged along to the stunning Meiringspoort Pass that would cut through the mountains as we turned South towards the town of De Rust and the Kammanassie road.
Meiringspoort Pass is a tarred road that makes it way through neck achingly high red cliffs along the Grootrivier valley floor. Opened in 1858, it was the first major pass built by the well known Thomas Bain. Over 150 years later it is a beautiful and popular pass to visit and we greatly enjoyed our gentle freewheel through it before our lunch stop in De Rust.
Still having a good 60 kilometres to go, we grabbed a quick sandwich and some cokes (I opted for a milkshake) and then carried on towards Eagle Falls. The undulating hills of the road taking us alongside the Kammanssie Nature Reserve had a bit of a sting to the legs but the slow and steady bus of Nic, Doug and J-Dogg just kept its wheels turning. The landscape was opening up a bit and becoming a fair bit greener! The views here were just as stunning as at any point along this route and that helped keep our minds off the distance. A few hours and couple rest stops later we turned off towards Eagle Falls Lodge, 3km off the main road and nestled in a beautiful valley on the edge of a steep slope leading down to the pools and waterfall of the Dieprivier. 151km, 2060m, 7 hours moving time. It has been a big day.
Eagle Falls Lodge is a great spot to unwind! Though we were too tired to make it off the deck down to the river, just to sit and take in the scenery from up top was good for the soul. The owners were friendly and sorted us out with a good meal before we got some much needed rest. What we thought would be a relatively easy cruise down to the sea on day 3 was about to show us a thing or two!
In the early morning sun, we were wrapping up our final stretch of Kammanassie road to the town of Uniondale. We passed between luscious farmlands and the gorgeous Kammanassie Nature Reserve to the south as we steadily gained elevation for the first 40km of the day. We were all a bit perplexed as to where on our ‘descent’ to Knysna we would gain the 2000 odd meters to match the stats on the Cape Cycle Routes website. We hoped that they might be wrong and that we would, in fact, not have much to get through that day. Little did we know what was to come.
We passed briefly though Uniondale and hopped onto the Prins Alfredpas road that took us South, for good this time! The next 30km or so to our halfway lunch stop was a bit up and down with the final 15km being the most glorious gravel descent of around 800 vertical meters. Absolutely stunning!
Just after 9am we pulled into Die Plaaskind Padstaal at the base of Prins Alfred’s pass (built in 1866) and engulfed their delicious Kudu Pies (and some cake) to refuel. Definitely a great stop to make at the bottom of the valley! We were warned of the terrain to come by the owner of the padstal. Large hills the went on for ages apparently! Our fears were confirmed. We really did have another 2000m day on our hands and worst of it, it seemed, was still to come. All we could do was top up the bottles, swing our legs over the steeds, and begin chipping away at the final leg of the journey. We could almost smell the see!
The climbs from then on were potent. Several kilometres in length and the closer we got to Knysna the steeper they became! When we finally reached the Diepwalle forest, the shade was much appreciated. We thankfully hadn’t dealt with too much heat on our journey but the cooler temperatures we nonetheless welcomed. The frost also brought the steepest climbs yet, and the sketchiest descents! With Nic Lamond making use of the emergency power-juice that had been lying dormant in his frame bag for many years, we knew it was getting real.
Our group had a brief moment of discussion as to whether we would try and stay on the high road through the forest or follow the set out route precisely into and out of particularly deep valleys. The latter option would include winch-your-way-up climbs and the legs at this point were not in good shape. Naturally, we choose the path of most resistance and the suffering that came with it. Doug and I eventually arrived at the top of the final climb to Simola hill to find Nic having a power nap while waiting for us under a tree. Mildly insulted, we pressed on to our finish at the Knysna heads.
Of course we were met with a stiff headwind as we made out way along the Knysna lagoon but nothing could stop us now, we had 380km under the belt! We were tired but feeling invincible and ready for our swim in the sea. Our little day 3 had turned out to be 131km, 2140m vertical and 6 hours 30 minutes on the bikes. Not so little in the end and a solid way to wrap our journey! As well as our magnificent swim in the sea, of course!
In hindsight, we think 4 or 5 days would have been a great timeframe to work with. Being able to slow down even further to drink in the scenes and enjoy more local experiences along the route. We will be back for sure! The bike tour was a new style of riding for Doug and I. A style that we are now convinced of and keen to explore further! We would highly recommend this route and the others like it at capecycleroutes.co.za. It is truly a brilliant way to explore and see the country we call home.
What are you waiting for? Rope some mates together, organise a support vehicle of friends or family if you’re keen, and get out there! Make the adventure happen. You won’t regret it!
Until next time,