Originally this cycle tour was planned as a “Knysna-to-Cape Town” event, but once the planning started in earnest it was decided to opt for a more scenic and challenging circuit through the Little Karoo, taking in some of the renowned mountain passes through the Outeniqua and the Swartberg Mountains. The group consisted of five cyclists – Colin, Derrick, Andrew and Kenny, all from Knysna, and myself, from Durban. We were joined on the first day by Peter, also from Knysna. Ranging in age from late fifties to early seventies we are not as competitive as we used to be and this was to be a relaxed (but not easy!), supported tour, with accommodation in convenient B&Bs along the route. Colin has an incredible knowledge of the area and there are very few roads in the Karoo that he has not cycled many times so the route planning and logistical arrangements were left largely in his hands. And a superb job he did! Thank you, Colin!
The Karoo is a vast area of semi-desert lying in the south western region of South Africa and is separated geographically into the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo. As implied by its name the smaller region is the Little Karoo, lying to the south, bounded in the north by the Swartberg Mountains and in the south by the Outeniqua Mountains. Thus to reach the Great Karoo from the coast one has to cross both the Outeniqua Mountains and the Swartberg Mountains which can be done courtesy of some of the most spectacular passes in the world.
We set off from the beautiful seaside town of Knysna on the morning of 1 May 2012, five cyclists determined to make our way over a daunting list of passes over the next six days.
The Seven Passes Road was built over a period of 16 years between 1867 and 1883 and remains a glowing testament to the road builders of that time and in particular to the incredible talents of the master road-builder Thomas Bain. Although some of the original bridges were replaced in the early 1900’s and a few sections have been tarred over the years, much of the roadwork remains that of the original pioneers. The road is quiet and scenic, perfect for cycling as the modern coastal national road is the preferred route for those in a hurry and carries the bulk of the traffic.
Cycling from Knysna at the eastern end of the road the first pass is soon encountered; the ominously named Phantom Pass. Although the name may conjure up images of spectres and spirits, the pass is actually named after the Phantom Moth which is fairly common in the area – I was expecting a headless horseman at the very least! The pass is only about three kilometres long and the gradient not too challenging so we reached the top without undue effort.
Next was the Homtini Pass, the construction of which was completed in 1882. A very sharp, winding descent led us through the beautifully wooded valley of the Homtini River and then the climb up the other side called for some effort. The name “Homtini” is said to mean “the place of the difficult passage”, and the terrain certainly provided a challenge for the original construction of the road (as it does for modern day cyclists!).
So on we rode, in splendid weather (although perhaps a little too warm for cycling), through spectacular scenery of indigenous forest, descending and climbing as the road crossed the difficult stretch of terrain, bisected by a seemingly endless series of gorges and ravines. The Karatara Pass, the Hoogekraal Pass, The Touw River Pass – crossed via the last remaining iron bridge on this road and opened in 1898 – The Silver River Pass and the Kaaimans Pass. Each one spectacular in its own way; each one a challenge to a pedal-powered ascent.
We reached George after cycling about 90 kilometres; the distance belied the amount of effort that went into crossing these Seven Passes!
Day 2: From George to near De Rust
(Approximately 80 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1145 metres)
Not long after the starting the day’s cycle we started climbing the famous Montagu Pass which would take us over the Outeniqua Mountains and into the Little Karoo. There were just three of us cycling this first stretch as Colin had a problem with his bike and he and Andrew went into George to have it seen to. Luckily it turned out to be nothing serious.
The Montagu Pass was completed in 1847, using convict labour to a large extent, and was built under the direction of the Australian road engineer Henry Fancourt White. Henry Fancourt White’s legacy in the area is not just the magnificent Pass, but extends to the historical property named “Fancourt” and also to the village of Blanco (meaning white), both of which were named after him.
The Pass is in excellent condition and the scenery quite spectacular. The gradient is fairly manageable on a bicycle, although the climb is unrelenting and taxing on aging legs. Near the start of the climb is the old toll house, apparently in the process of being restored. Early travellers were required to pay a toll for the privilege of using the pass (toll roads in South Africa are NOT new!) – three pence per wheel and a penny for each animal drawing the wagons. Would that be sixpence for the bike and a penny for the pedal-pusher, one wonders.
Nearer the top of the Pass we passed under the railway bridge and then reached Moertjieklip, a large rock that was apparently dislodged during the building of the railway line and which rolled down the hill, crushing and killing one of the workers.
From the top of Montagu Pass we were in the Little Karoo and the terrain was pleasantly undulating as we passed through attractive farmlands with large flocks of ostriches. After passing through Dysselsdorp, we ended the day’s journey after about 80km at the Oudemoragie Guest Farm, which provided quite spectacular views of the Spitskop mountain as it peered through the low lying cloud.
In terms of cycling, this was a much easier day than the first day, and was, in fact, to be the easiest day of the tour.
Day 3: Near De Rust to Prince Albert
(Approximately 84 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1741 metres)
This was a day of two halves! The morning ride was very pleasant, with relatively easy, rolling terrain in pleasant, sunny weather. The kind of morning casual cyclists dream of. Cycling in our shirtsleeves, heading westwards through the foothills of the Swartberg with the sun on our backs. Wonderful!
Then came lunch time and with it the foul weather.
As we turned to the north and the approach to the Swartberg Pass it started to rain, the wind picked up from the north and the temperature plummeted. The group of cyclists was quickly reduced to two as the prospect of tackling the Pass under these conditions drove the others to the (relative) comfort and warmth of the support vehicle.
The Swartberg Pass is considered by many to be one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world. From the Little Karoo the Pass climbs the magnificent slopes of the Swartberg, populated with groves of watsonias and proteas, climbing steadily for seven kilometres to crest at 1568 metres above sea level and more than 1000 metres above the Little Karoo from whence it started. The Pass, constructed by Thomas Bain between 1881 and 1888 (this was to be the last Pass that he would construct in South Africa), rises in a series of switchbacks and hairpin bends, providing breathtaking views at every turn.
But today these views were hidden from us by the thick mist and pelting rain as we cycled up the unrelenting gradient. Looking over the edge of the road toward the valley below revealed nothing but milky-white mist. The gravel road became muddy and small streams developed in the roadway as the water spilled down off the mountainside. The mud and the water and the gradient conspired to retard the rotation of the wheels of the cycles and to destroy any lingering remnants of our good humour.
Picture courtesy of Andrew Finn
Climbing, though, generates a fair amount of warmth and being somewhat protected from the wind on the southern side of the Pass meant that we were not unbearably cold on the ascent. I planned to meet the support vehicle at the top of the Pass and put on some warm clothing before the descent, but unfortunately I reached the top ahead of the vehicle. The wind on the northern side of the Pass was very strong and although it was not raining on this side, it was savagely cold. I started the descent, but within a very short time I was so cold that I could not continue. I waited for the support vehicle and when it arrived I donned some warmer clothes and completed the descent to Prince Albert. The last few kilometres of tarred road were a welcome reprieve from the clinging gravel of the Pass itself.
The hot shower at Dennehof B&B was one of the highlights of the tour!!
To read about Part Two of this tour, click here.