Seamus Allardice spent his formulative years riding bikes around De Hoop Nature Reserve. And his long-time friend Jacques Rademan joined him for many a ride. So, when Seamus invited Jacques to accompany him on a trip to their childhood stomping grounds, with the added bonus of staying in a luxurious De Hoop Collection cottage, there was no saying no. Even if the weather looked a bit questionable…
I lived on De Hoop Nature Reserve from 1993 to 2003. 10 glorious years of childhood adventures. Riding 18 speed Avalanche Tundra mountain bikes all over the show. To the beach, through knee deep water across the vlei and out across the plains into the mountainous Eastern Sector of the reserve. We also shot caties; rode motorbikes; paddled canoes; held epic rugby, football and especially cricket matches; surfed; snorkeled; hiked and generally got up to relatively good-natured mischief. De Hoop was a great place to grow up.
In those years’ mountain biking was hardly the mass participation sport it is now. People would sometimes bring bikes along to the reserve for a short ride, but nobody was doing long or multi-day rides. Or nearly no one. Peter Hill, one of the reserve managers, was a rare exception. As were a small group of his mates who convinced my dad, Rory Allardice, the then senior manager to open a mountain biking route on the reserve. With Engen sponsoring the venture they established a short-lived mountain bike touring concept.
Riders would drive into the Eastern part of the reserve; between the Potberg Mountain range and the hard dunes which trace the Atlantic Ocean for much of De Hoop’s vast coastline. From a central cottage, Cupidoskraal, riders would have the option of day rides to costal spots like Vaalkrans, Lekkerwater, Hamerkop and Noetsie. The concept was just starting to gather momentum when the now permanently oversubscribed Whale Trail was launched. And unable to muster the man-power to manage both projects simultaneously the mountain biking one fell by the wayside.
Since then the local primary school, Ouplaas, hosted a single day MTB race for a few years, the 2008 Absa Cape Epic traversed the reserve and more recently the De Hoop Vlei MTB Experience has showcased the riding on offer. And the riding is truly spectacular. The ever-growing kilometres of singletrack provide challenging conditions for riders of all skill levels as the limestone surfaces prove increasingly tricky the faster they are ridden. Then there is the plethora of jeep tracks which criss-cross the reserve. Many are marked for mountain biking; some are as yet untapped. Regardless they are begging to be explored.
The focus of my trip tough was the gravel road which stretches from the reserve’s Potberg gate to the far eastern corner, near Cape Infanta. I’d been eyeing that road for years. The question was just how to link it into a manageable ride. With the help of plotaroute I came up with a workable solution. A 106-kilometre loop starting and finishing at the De Hoop Collection, traversing the eastern part of the reserve, tracing the Breede River upriver from Infanta to Malgas and then following a gravel road home to De Hoop.
All told the route only featured 1 500 metres of climbing. That, along with the fact that apart from about 20 kilometres near the end of the reserve were all on good gravel roads, lulled me into a false sense of security. It’ll be easy I thought. And I said as much in selling the idea to Jacques.
Not that Jacques needed much convincing. The prospect of a weekend away at the De Hoop Collection did that automatically. Especially as his girlfriend Imke was keen to come with and make use of the spa while we slogged our way across the Overberg on bikes.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and checked into the Fish Eagle cottage overlooking the De Hoop Vlei. With Grebes, Teals, Ducks and Spoonbills of all manner of sorts calling in the sunset we got settled in before heading to the restaurant for a delicious meal.
Three scrumptious courses and two bottles of great local wine followed and set the scene for a relaxed day on the bike the next day. The chilly start to the morning ensured we didn’t get rolling until the sun was well and truly up. And a fresh wind from the north west, which blew from the off, hinted at what would cause most of the day’s difficulties. But filled with excitement for the roads ahead Jacques and I set out without too much concern for the wind prediction.
The early kilometres took us through the main section of De Hoop Nature Reserve. Past cape mountain zebra, bontebok and baboons grazing or in the case of the baboons foraging on the plains. Jacques’ nemesis, the tar climb out of the reserve led us into the rolling hard dunes and from there into the Overberg farmlands. Turning right, towards Potberg we had the wind at our backs for the next 40 kilometres.
We flew downwind. Cracking out a good pace we passed Ouplaas, crossed back into the nature reserve at the Potberg gate and rolled into the Eastern Sector. There the riding became more interesting. The surfaces became rougher and the road-side views changed from rolling wheat and canola fields to fynbos, the occasional Bluegum or Wattle forest and rugged mountains. To our left the Potberg was semi-shrouded in clouds. To the right the ocean lay, azure, across a range of low limestone hills.
I had intended to ride my gravel bike. But as Jacques was unprepared to ride the course on his road bike (a wise move), we settled on mountain bikes. That transpired to be a comfort improving decision as the road worsened the further east we rode. It never reached the extent to which I would have been completely out of my depth on a gravel bike, but wider tyres and 100 millimetres of suspension travel did make things easier.
After two hours of riding we crossed the style at the far end of De Hoop Nature Reserve and descended towards the Breede River road. The wind at our backs had lulled us into a false sense of our own power. Within two hundred meters of turning into the wind that illusion was shattered.
The next 6 hours of the day featured 4 hours of riding. And two stops at riverside pubs. Jacques and I battled into the wind, initially taking turns to pull. By the time we reached the turn off to the Bush Pub after 14 kilometres of slogging into the wind we both needed a beer. So, we took the 2.5 kilometre detour in search of beer and as it turned out a packet of chips each.
That detour cost us some time, but we had all day and we didn’t realise the wind was rising. The next came very shortly after the Bush Pub, but at least it didn’t require us to get far off route. The Boathouse is located on the only stretch of tar road on the southern bank of the Breede River and is without question a river institution. In fact, after stopping at both the Boathouse and the Bush Pub I can unequivocally recommend bypassing the latter for the former.
At the Boathouse we shared a pizza and contemplated phoning Imke to come pick us up. It would have been so easy to get stuck there. Watching the tide slowly drop, sipping beers and talking nonsense. But we’d started this riding thing, and we had to finish it on our bikes. Finishing with bikes on the back of a bakkie doesn’t count.
So, we set out again. Battling into the headwind once more. After 6 kilometres, which felt more like 20, we turned for home and De Hoop. Immediately we realised that we had not in fact been cycling into a headwind. Rather we’d been braving a cross wind. Heading back to De Hoop the wind was really blowing straight into our faces. Worrying at our bikes, slowing every metre gained with an invisible restraining hand.
The wind also made any effort at communication pointless. It whipped any words out beyond the other’s ear-shot before a semblance of sense could be devised. There was nothing to do but keep pedalling. Keep riding into the wind; climbing hills and fighting down descents on the rolling roads across the Rûens. Jacques was clearly taking strain, but to his credit he battled on.
Eventually, we reached the final turn-off. The turn from the district gravel road to De Hoop. The turn which would bring the dastardly wind side on for the final 15 kilometres. Even with it grabbing at my wheels on the descents, enforcing absolute concentration to risk crashing so close to home the cross-wind was comparative bliss.
Summiting the final roller; the ocean, sand dunes and the whitewashed cottages of the De Hoop Collection came into view. A unanimous decision was made to take the shortest route home. We couldn’t follow the main reserve road for doing so would mean braving a final 4 kilometres of headwind.
Avoiding that self-inflicted torture was a good choice I feel. You can’t end a big ride on a low. And given the spread that Imke had prepared; chips, cheeses and sandwiches we certainly didn’t finish on a low. Even Jacques perked up after a bite to eat. He was eager to reflect on the opening couple of hours of the ride. The Type Two Fun we had for the next 6 hours, well apart from the beer and pizza stops, will probably only be fun upon reflection in a week or two.
That is of course the way of it for most big rides. And for me that’s the way it should be. So, maybe it was a good thing the wind blew or it would have been far too easy. But then there are so many options to add on to toughen up the route if the weather is too benign. We could have diverted down to Infanta or gone exploring the jeep tracks towards the Whale Trail’s coastal cottages. There are just so many options to explore and we didn’t even touch on the reserve or the Potteberg Trails’ singletacks.
I will have to go back then. And if you haven’t been to De Hoop, I suggest you put it on your to-do-list too. Take your bike when you go! And your trail running shoes, binoculars and snorkelling gear. But mainly your bike. You won’t regret it.
Exploring De Hoop by Bike
De Hoop Collection offers a guided mountain bike game viewing tour and boasts marked trails which you can ride all year round. Alternatively if you want to explore further afield you are welcome to download the map, elevation profile and GPX files for my 106 kilometre ride from plotaroute.
De Hoop Racing
If you are of a more competitive nature and prefer to do your exploring in races check out the De Hoop Vlei MTB Experience. It takes place from 27 to 29 September 2019 and you can find all the details online at www.dehoopvleimtb.co.za.
With the help of Johan Krigler the De Hoop Vlei MTB Experience team have been building a new trail to bypass the tar road climb. Dubbed the Limestone Flatty it will be a 4 kilometre long dual direction singletrack. I rode it when it was 75% completed the day after my big De Hoop Adventure ride and it has the makings of a fantastic bit of trail. Check it out here.