In May 2018 Seamus Allardice joined Zane Schmahl, Jacques Marais and a group of fellow cycling adventure enthusiasts on the recce ride for the Bikamino – a three day tour through the arid Northern Cape Province. From the once booming mining outpost of O’kiep to the icy waters of the Atlantic Oceanside village of Hondeklipbaai, the Bikamino traversed Namaqualand’s beautiful landscape and took in some of the area’s hidden gems.
My Introduction to the Bikamino
Standing over the new Momsen Vipa Ultra, at the bike’s mid-Cape Epic launch, EcoBound’s Zane Schmahl whispered: “We’re putting together a recce for a new event in the Northern Cape. Would you like to join us?”
That was all it took. I didn’t need any more info or convincing I was in.
Six weeks and a nine hour drive later, the other Bikamino recce riders and myself arrived in O’kiep in the heart of South Africa’s most sparsely populated province for what was to become a memorable three day cycling adventure.
With the three day ride being semi-supported, and riders expected to carry everything they would need for a day of riding, hydration packs were essential. That said the 4x4s with photographer Jacques Marais, videographer Frans Fourie and local expert Dudley Wessels were never too far away, so emergency supplies were always on hand. But it was important, as a recce, to see if it was possible to complete the distances unaided; hence the need to carry extra water.
Along with the two bottles on my bike I carried a First Ascent Aqueous hydration pack with a 2 litre bladder. I also added my camp stove, a one cup moka pot and enough Terbodore The Great Dane ground coffee beans for three days’ worth of trail side brews.
My bike choice was dictated by Zane’s need to see if the route was gravel bike friendly, so I rode my trusty Specialized Diverge (read more about it here), with a 38c Specialized Trigger Pro at the front and a 33c Trigger Pro at the rear. Ideally I would have rolled on 38c’s all round, but the rear clearance is a bit tight and a slight wobble on my very well used rear rim means that the 38c tyre clips the chainstay, so 33c would and did serve.
Day 1: O’kiep to Naries – 68km with 1460m of climbing
Heading out from the O’kiep Country Hotel I had virtually no idea of what to expect. “Some sections are pretty rough,” Zane warned. He and I were on gravel bikes to test if the route was thin wheel friendly. And the early kilometres certainly were; great hard-packed gravel roads cutting between the koppies and ridgelines of the Northern Cape.
Soon after passing through the village of Nababeep though we started a sweeping gravel road descent. Skipping over corrugations at speed soon popped a water bottle from one of my bottle cages though. So while the rest of the group sped off I was forced to descend cautiously. By the time the road began to climb again I was probably the only one in the group happy to be going uphill. Not having to focus on remaining upright also gave me a chance to take in the amazing scenery. It is arid but beautiful in Namaqualand – the type of landscape which kindles a respect for the hardy people who eke out a living off the unforgiving land.
A proper 4×4 track, complete with what could to all intents and purposes have been a double black diamond descent on my gravel bike, took us from the top of the gravel pass to the base of the intimidating Spektakelpas. The mountain bikers in the group loved the descent, but what followed was definitely better on the gravel bike.
At a shade under 10km long and gaining 550m in elevation Spektakelpas isn’t the steepest, but in the last 10 kay of a ride and with the temperature nudging up into the mid 30’s it was a significant challenge. With the knowledge that the oasis of Narries Namaqua Retreat awaiting us at the top of the climb I rode it pretty much as hard as I could. Despite that Hannele Steyn soon disappeared from view over the first of the many false summits of the climb. The Last Lioness cruised up Spektakelpas with enviable ease.
After four, five or six (the sun and relentless climbing make the memory fuzzy) false summits I eventually crested the pass and rolled, absolutely exhausted through the gates of Narries. Thankfully the guest house has a pool, so I stripped off my hydration pack, fished my phone and empty bar wrappers from my pockets, and dove in.
Bliss! Followed by Darling Brew beers, ice water and an amazing lunch.
Later, that evening we pedalled up the gravel road above Narries – past their eco-cottages which are set into the mountainside – to the edge of the escarpment. The escarpment overlooks the Spektakelpas and west across the lower hills towards the sun setting into the Atlantic Ocean.
Backlit by the setting sun we rode up and down a few times so Jacques could get shots of the new Extreme Lights Endurance+ bike light in action. Then we retired to the Narries lapa, for a chat from Open Africa about their tourism development work in the area.
Dinner and the last night of the trip in a real bed concluded the opening day of the Bikamino recce.
Day 2: Narries to Kookfontein – 84km with 1272m of climbing
My hands had taken a beating on the hoods of my gravel bike on the first day, so when the options for the start of day two were presented there was no way I was taking my 38c and 33c tyres down the 4×4 track. After stamping our Bikamino passports we soft pedalled out of the Narries gates, Zane and the mountain bikers went straight across the tar road while I followed it up a short drag and down the smooth asphalt of the Spektakelpas.
Hooking a left at the bottom of the pass I made my way along a sandy gravel road to the meeting point of the two route options. The Bikamino is full of options like this; offering shorter, technical, routes off the primary red route. Or longer, smoother roads – intended for bike packers on gravel bikes – indicated in green on the official route map.
I heard the rest of the group long before I saw them. The distinctive voices of Robert le Brun and Dino Lloyd echoed off the kranse as they descended along a track which followed the power line down the mountain. Reunited, the group followed a sandy road along the banks of the equally dry and sandy Buffelsrivier. Then crossed a fence into private land and started the day’s main climb.
Within 50m Hannele was well ahead of the rest of the group and as the climb became steeper and looser I gave up on trying to ride, settling rather for a hike-a-bike. I wasn’t alone in my approach and the next hour and a half were spent climbing or trudging up gradients which peaked at over 20% in places. It wasn’t all a hike mind you; most of the climb was rideable, for mortals, not just for Hannele who only walked two sections.
The 4×4 track continued briefly over the summit of the climb before joining a large gravel road known as the Messelpad, which in the 1860s formed part of the copper route from O’kiep to Hondeklipbaai. In those days the route was navigated by ox wagon, before the railway was built to Port Nolloth and the shipping of copper from Hondeklipbaai ceased just a decade later.
The Messelpad led us past herds of goats and hardy sheep, watched over by Anatolian shepherds, into the Namaqua National Park. That section of road, along with the road from Montagu up the Ouberg Pass (Read about that in “Ride to Opsoek”), has to rank as one of my favourite bits of gravel road riding I’ve ever done. For the mountain bikers in the group the road then got even better as it started to descend from the Kamiesberg Mountains, via the Wildeperdehoek Pass, to the Namaqua grasslands below.
As we were to find out later that evening the grasslands were seeded inadvertently in the 1800’s by settler cattle, which grazed in the Boesmanland in the summer months and wintered in the warmer Namaqualand. The seeds were carried in the cattle’s gut from the Boesmanland in the east, before being deposited in their dung on the Namaqua plains.
While the mountain bikers bombed down the pass I initially kept up as best I could; but had to stop when my chain rattled completely off the cassette and chainring. Chain tension had become my biggest concern mid-way through day one, when it became clear that my chain was too stretched and my road derailleur too weak to keep it in place as soon as the terrain roughened up. Over the course of the three days I became an expert at stopping, resetting the chain where it had derailed – usually off the lower jockey wheel – and chasing back to the group. Aside from frequent stops this meant I had to ride in the big ring for as much of the route as possible and keep constant pressure on the drivetrain.
From the base of the Wildeperdehoek Pass we cut a straight line across the grasslands, turning left towards Soebatsfontein and then turning left again; leaving the great gravel roads behind for a 4×4 track shortcut. The 4×4 route, as with much of the later part of the day’s ride, forms part of the Caracal Eco Route; a 4×4 fauna and flora viewing route through the Namaqua National Park. While by no means one of the more technical sections of the Bikamino route the sandy tracks at the end of an 80 odd kilometre ride made for slow going. Fortunately Zane and finding the going just as tough on his 40c shod Momsen gravel bike.
There’s nothing like suffering with someone…
The oasis of Kookfontein couldn’t come soon enough. And while Narries is a metaphorical oasis – complete with luxury accommodation in the heart of the Namaqualand – Kookfontein is a literal oasis; complete with palm trees.
Kookfontein is an environmental education camp within the park and our campsite under the palms was idyllic. Best of all were the cool waters of the Kookfontein dam, followed closely by the snoek braai dinner.
Before dinner we were regaled by a couple of the SANParks staff with tales of yore and were warned of the presence of a very large leopard, which also makes use of the Kookfontein fountain. Unfortunately we didn’t spot the leopard ourselves, though Jacques presented himself as human bait by spending much of the night photographing star trails, in the absence of light pollution, across the clear Namaqua night sky.
Day 3: Kookfontein to Hondeklipbaai – 62km with 615m of climbing
The final day of the Bikamino recce took us from the heart of the Namaqua National Park to the Atlantic Ocean. After two days of exploring black routes whenever possible the route from Kookfontein to Hondeklipbaai was mercifully all on the red, primary, route. Another mercy was that the first 5km featured the only significant climb of the day, a 100m gain up a short gravel pass, on the road to Soebatsfontein.
The village of Soebatsfontein is encircled by the national park and seems a throwback to times long forgotten. Like many of its fellow Namaqualand towns it rose and fell with the fortunes of the mining industry. What little business takes place there now is limited to tourism in the Namaqua flower season, but hopefully mountain bike touring will add to that income in the years to come. The most remarkable feature of the village is undoubtedly its name. The fountain, which is the lifeblood of the town, marked the spot where in 1898 Hendrik Stievert, a farmhand, begged for his life having been caught stealing cattle. Clemency was however not grated, and Stievert was executed despite his pleas.
Exiting Soebatsfontein, our lives intact, we headed due west before swinging south towards Hondeklipbaai. The roads were wide and the gravel reasonably good, apart from one particularly sandy, 50m, section which nearly threw me from my bike. I hit it at nearly 40kph and fishtailed wildly through the first 10m until I had slowed enough to regain control. After surviving the rocky descent on day one it would have been rather embarrassing, but at least soft, to fall in the sand.
Everyone was clearly eager to reach our final destination because there were limited stops on the final day. In fact we only stopped twice as a group once for a photo at the sign marking the Hondeklipbaai turn off and one final time to regroup just before we reached the coast.
Rolling down to the Aristea shipwreck, were ice cold Darling Brews awaited, spirits were high. The fresh ocean breeze invigorating after three long days in the arid interior – all the while deceptively close to the ocean but seemingly a world away.
Namaqualand is truly a unique part of South Africa, almost a country on its own it’s so different. But in that difference there is a unique beauty which defies description, it has to be experienced – by total emersion – to be understood.
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