The winding road to Montagu passes by rock and water and long grass and birds. The town is colonial and quaint.
Our last stop before the Karoo, we stock up big. We don’t expect any services or pavement for three days. Three pounds of golden delicious apples, 2 large rounds of potbrood, a dozen school buns, a brick of mature cheddar, a brick of ladismither, an english cucumber, a pound of cherry tomatoes, a pack of viennas, coconut biscuits and eetsumore shortbreads, Kloof coffee and chicory, festive fruitcake chocolate, 4 avocados, safari peanuts and peri-peri sauce.
We’ve strapped 4 water bottles to our forks and fill them at the cafe on the way out of town. The owner Keith introduces himself as Mr. Mountain Bike. He eyes our bikes and offers to cart our gear up the pass. Nick is too proud, so I am too. He directs us to the road and promises to take his wife on an evening drive to check up on us. We thank him and head uphill.
I still have no idea what or where the Karoo is. I’ve heard from some that there’s nothing but ostrich farms and brush. Others speak of mountains, antelopes of all sizes and horn configurations, baboons, and the one time they saw a leopard. And then they say it’s hot. Everyone says it’s hot there.
Near the top of Ouberg Pass, Keith and his wife catch up with us. We talk a minute, they wish us well and we roll down as the sun sets.
We sleep out and wake early to ride smooth wide dirt roads to jeep tracks in the Anysberg Nature Reserve. The sign at the unlocked gate welcomes cyclists and swimmers and smiley faces and indicates an office down the way. The previous days saw rain and we see nine stocky antelopes drinking from a fresh spring. They flee as we approach, but watch us from a hillside, their eighteen thick straight horns toward us.
We continue to the nature reserve office, nearly the only building we’ve seen since Montagu. There is a new kitchen and a swimming pool made out of a water tank. It’s time for shade and a little running and lunch. We pedal through the hot afternoon on sandy rocky jeep tracks and lift our bikes over a couple of fences that lead us out of the reserve to a white house and a windmill. I spy an older woman behind a fence and call after her, raising a water bottle. She responds in Afrikaans. I try again in English. She waves her arms at the windmill. A metal pipe pumps groundwater into a large tank under the mill. We fill nine liters and roll down a smooth county road to camp.
The next morning promises to be a cooker and we’re looking forward to hiking down The Ladder to The Hell.
For now, we’re following the Freedom Trail, a 2350 km dirt route across South Africa. Most people race the Challenge in the opposite direction in June. We’ve read a couple trip reports, but it’s hard to tell what’s what when up is down. The trail promises to be full of legends and adventure.
In the morning we smell the green onions and chives of Rouxpos before we see the fields. Distant laborers raise their arms and cheer us on. Vleiland has a town hall with a library. There is a store. We drink cold Stoney ginger beer on the stoop out front.
The dirt road leads us to a private reserve and a gate identifying a 4×4 trail called to “The Hell and Back”. Nick calls the listed number. The man allows us to pass, but warns that the landowners down below “can get angry.” We chunk our way to the ladder. The Ladder is nearly a 2000 foot drop to The Hell. The trail used to be a donkey route to deliver supplies to the Afrikaans community below. They settled in the valley in the mid 1800s and remained nearly isolated until the road was built in 1962. I gingerly lower my bike down steep loose rocks. Actually, the bike suffers minor abuse. The trail is extremely steep and loose and rocky.
Below, we cross a stream towards a couple of estates. A lady stands in our path. I wave and she crooks her finger at me, reeling me in. From farther than conversation distance, she recites:
“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who told you that you could come down here?”
I continue towards her. She repeats:
“Who are you? And where did you come from?”
I respond: “I’m Lael and I’m from Alaska.”
Perplexed by our bikes, she softens, asking about our ride and telling us we’re lucky we didn’t encounter the Mr. McGregor up above. He never would’ve let us come down. She asks where we’ll sleep and says she has a camp up and over the hill. We must hurry as we have to make a fire to heat the bath water. She assures us we’ll encounter Donald in a beat bakkie along the road and tells us the code to the electrified gate. As we pedal past she calls that we’ve a climb that’ll break our backs ahead of us. There’s a special word for it in Afrikaans.
Up and over we cross paths with a sunburnt bobblehead in a Datsun. It’s Donald. He says we must camp at his place.
He mumbles something about 200 Rand and interrupts himself to say that he must ask his sister and the camp is signed. We thank him and continue.
We pass a wooden pennant marked “camp”. We still have an hour of daylight, so we continue down the valley. Soon we see another pennant for “Donald’s house”. The valley only really becomes Alice in Wonderland when we reach the electric fence. The code we were given opens a lock box that holds a key that unlocks the gate, which gives a gentle electric buzz through the handle. Mountains tower the quiet valley. It’s floral and sandy and smells good.
After hours, a sign at the visitor center tells us to inquire at the house around back. She asks if we’ve just ridden into the valley, and are leaving tomorrow. There is only one rideable route into the valley, which will be our exit. We agree, so as to avoid describing the semi-confrontation with the woman at the end of the valley. The kind lady there encourages us to camp at Donald’s and offers us the electric fence code. We smile and nod and keep going the other way to find an empty group camp down the road. I jump rope to the sunset and we eat the last of our hotdogs and cookies.
We get up at first light to climb steep switchbacks before the sun bakes The Hell. It’s worth it. We’re 2000 feet up and out in the cool air before seven. The road continues for the next 40K as a series of ascending hills, up and down. The brush and the mountains are beautiful, the climbs more challenging as the sun heats up. The recent rains flow though cool streams and we stop to submerge ourselves three times.
At the top of Swartberg Pass is a descent all the way to Prince Albert, over 3000ft below. Baking hot with blazing arms from three days of sun I shoot straight down the mountain. Pink and orange and red rock tower along the sides of the steep gravel road, like the Mund’s track into Sedona. Flying down, I think about how I’d like to climb this canyon, to spend more time moving through it, to slow it down. For now, I have to get out of the sun. I’m pretty sure even my eyeballs are sunburnt.
Prince Albert is straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Wind whistles through flowering trees outside white-washed houses lining Main Street, except everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.