I’ve expected my “agh, how hard could it be” attitude to catch up with me eventually. I just didn’t expect it to be on the road from Hell. In hindsight, that was foolish. Hell’s teeth, boet; that was tough writes Seamus Allardice.
Since January 2018 I’ve organised or been on a bike packing trip every six months or so. Usually, they feature stays in nice (sometimes basic, but nonetheless nice) accommodation and a support vehicle. On occasion we’ve camped and on one trip, where my father was the back-up driver, had a notorious lack of support.
(But this isn’t about Reliable Rory or his penchant for long brunches and early lunches. In his defence at least he ensured we had cold beers upon arrival at every camp site…) This is about my solo bikepacking trip this May. A proper, unsupported trip. Carrying everything I needed on my bike or on my back.
The plan was to start at Le KaRoux, Mark and Colleen le Roux’s farm in the Opsoek Valley, and ride up the Seweweekspoort, then down into Die Hel on the first day. Day two would take me out of Die Hel to the southern base of the Swartberg Pass. Then the third day traversed the Klein Karoo basin to Gamka Mountain Nature Reserve; before the last day took me back to Opseok, via Calitzdorp and the Huisrivier Pass. It sounds so simple on paper. Roughly 60-kilometres per day. Not too tough for an experienced rider.
Aaah, the folly of misplaced confidence.
It started benignly enough mind you. The first day was actually fairly easy, apart from the descent of Die Leer into Die Hel. But that hike-a-bike might have taken more of a toll than I initially ascribed to it.
Day 1: Opsoek to Die Hel
Distance: 54km with 970m of climbing
I’d been eager to hit the road early on the first day, but as I prepared to leave Colleen arrived with a mountain of toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. “You can’t go without breakfast” she insisted. So I had another cup of coffee, ate my body weight in white bread and contemplated the road ahead.
Mark, meanwhile, had organised the local cycling development team, which the Le Roux’s founded after the Level 5 Lockdown last year, to ride up the Poort with me. “They’re more excited than you are” Mark related to me. And that they were.
The Zoar Bigshots have taken to mountain biking with aplomb. Like most pre-teens they ride without fear, pushing their old bicycles way beyond what any reasonable adult would consider to be the safe limit. Endurance isn’t their strong point however, though there are three of the older kids who are showing great progress. One even won a 12-kilometre trail run the other day.
Anyway, I set out with five Bigshots for company. By the time we reached the mouth of the Seweweekspoort, 5-kilometres from Le KaRoux only three remained with me. The fittest two paced me up the Poort, ensuring I watched their rear wheels more than I took in the spectacular red sandstone cliffs which wall the road. Ascending into the Central Karoo from the Klein Karoo the Poort gains a shade under 500-metres in 17-kilometres. It’s just enough of a climb to make you aware that you’re climbing, especially with a heavily laden bike.
At the summit of the Seweweekspoort we turned right towards Bosluiskloof and the Gamkaspoort Dam. From the gate to Bosluiskloof I was on my own. The Zoar Bigshots turned for home; a long, gradual, downhill ahead of them. For me more climbing awaited, but I wasn’t sure exactly how much.
The next 20-kilometers were a complete mystery to me. I had no idea how rough the 4×4 route to Die Leer was going to be. Or how easy or hard it would be to lug a bike down the footpath into Die Hel. Once in the valley I assumed the road would be okay, but I had been repeatedly warned about the gate and electric fence which I’d have to get over/under/through somehow.
As it transpired the 4×4 route isn’t too daunting. In fact, I’m sure it’s drivable in a 2×4 bakkie with good ground clearance. Die Leer though is as challenging as its reputation leads you to believe. The path is rapidly eroding into a narrow scree slope. Well, a scree of small, jagged, boulders that gets increasingly steep as you descend towards Die Hel far below. The road to hell is not a smooth wide road, as my Sunday school teacher had told me. It takes persistence and dedication to sink that low.
But it’s worth it. Having carried, pushed, pulled and generally manhandled my bike down into the valley I was amazed to see how lush it was. The Klein Karoo in general has had a great early winter. From Montague to Oudtshoorn the veld is greener than I’ve ever seen it. New growth shoots spring up everywhere you look and puddles lie in shady hollows, days after the last rain.
The western reaches of Die Hel are particularly verdant. Saved from the December 2019 fire the narrow floodplain along the Kleinbergskloof River is vegetated by dense growth acacia Karoo thorn trees. There are kudu and other antelope in the valley, but you’ll ride right by them in the thick bush and never see them.
Anyone who has been through the Baviaanskloof will note similarities between Die Hel and the Baviaans. Though the latter is wilder, in terms of vegetation though more readily explorable due to the quality of the road in from the Swartberg Pass side. There is also a surprising number of accommodation options in Die Hel.
Boplaas is the place to stay if you want access to the western half of the valley. This is due to the fact that their boarder is secured by an electric fence and an imposing gate. When I reached the gate, I tried the code I’d been told my work. But it had been changed so I had to go in search of someone with the access code.
A building team were renovating an old cottage, a few hundred metres from the gate. But they didn’t have the code. They directed me to the owner’s house. This was my least preferred outcome, as I knew I was probably trespassing…
I say probably because there has been some spirited disagreement between the Freedom Challenge founder David Waddilove and the farm owner. Die Leer and the road to the far end of Die Hel are arguably servitudes. But its better to ask politely for forgiveness than it is to start by arguing a point, especially when you’re on the inside of a gate.
“Jy moet maar omdraai” the owner joked, while I befriended his great Dane. Fortunately, he didn’t enforce the jest. But if you plan on following in my tracks, I’d strongly suggest getting permission before setting out. I doubt this story will lead to an influx of bikepackers traversing Die Hel, but still… there’s only so many times a cyclist can ask for forgiveness, rather than permission, before he makes someone climb back up Die Leer.
From the Boplaas gate I followed the only road through the valley, climbing slowly towards Elandspas. I was surprised to discover how long Die Hel actually is. I kept expecting to turn a corner and see Fonteinplaas, my accommodation for the night. But the ride never got boring, despite the unanticipated length.
The Gamka River had burst its banks and crossing it, on the low causeway, required getting my feet wet. Another 5 or so kilometres of riding allowed my shoes to dry before I eventually came upon my campsite. A spot I’d chosen because Fonteinplaas is the only spot in the valley where there’s a restaurant.
With a coke and a beer in hand, and dinner booked, I rolled down to the campground. Once there I unpacked my gear and pitched my tent for the night, under the canopy of an acacia.
Day 2: Die Hel to Kobus se Gat
Distance: 56.40km with 2 024m of climbing
The next morning, with a pot of coffee and a hearty boere breakfast in my belly, I set out for De Hoek. De Hoek is a caravan park on the southern side of the Swartberg Pass. Riders of To Hell and Back will know it as starting and finishing point of the country’s oldest stage race. And will also know that the road out of Die Hel is a hell of a lot harder than the one in!
Foolishly I was optimistic about knocking off the ride in around 4 hours. As that was the time it took me to ride Stage 2 of To Hell and Back the last time I did it. Within 3 kilometres of climbing, on Elandspas, I reset my target to 6 hours. Which too be honest, for a large part of the day I thought I would end up overshooting too. At one point I even made peace with camping on the road, but more on that later…
Elandspas, for those who have yet to ride it, is the first 4-kilometre ascent out of Die Hel. It crests a ridgeline, at about 1 000 metres above sea level, after a series of sweeping switchbacks on a road which clings, often, precariously to the mountainside. It does however provide iconic views over Gamkaskloof, so I didn’t need too much encouragement to stop three-quarters of the way up and take a photo.
That was the last time I rode a significant portion of any climb for the rest of the day. I trudged the rest of the way to the summit of Elandspas and blasted my way down, what’s known from the other direction as, Heartbreak Hill. At the bottom, where a stream crosses the river, I refilled my bottle and met two couples on a 4×4 trip into Die Hel.
They were in the area for a wedding and were exploring the day before the festivities got underway. Despite it being before 10am they were quick to offer me beers. Mainly because both the men were Eastern Cape farmers and that’s just the type of hospitality you can expect from any Eastern Cape farmer, whether they’re at home or on holiday.
Having told me they were driving back out of Die Hel that evening they subconsciously became my safety net. However badly things went wrong I’d have them and a lift, to the top of the Swartberg Pass, on the back of one of their bakkies to fall back on. How close it came to that I don’t know, but I presume I was within half an hour of being picked up later that afternoon.
From the river crossing the road climbs virtually relentlessly. In fact, all 2 000 metres of elevation which I gained on the day came in the first 45 kilometres of the route. The last 10 kilometres were all downhill on the Swartberg Pass. Again, and again, I’d start a climb, grinding in my easiest gear, until I could pedal no more. Then I’d get off and walk. Pushing my bike uphill.
My Garmin would auto-pause. And when it was actually measuring speed, my pace varied between 4 and 5 kilometres per hour. The only positive was that each climb was followed by a short descent, allowing me to quickly cover a kilometre or two at 20 kilometres per hour.
After 4 hours I found myself refilling my bottles again. This time from a stream that ran below the road. An old stone packed retaining wall to one side and a lush bush, which was growing next to a pool on the other, I hid from the afternoon sun and contemplated my life choices. Mistakes made in search of Type II Fun.
With nobody to cry to I had little choice but to press on. Walking every climb. Rolling every descent until finally I got to the Swartberg Pass intersection. Only there did I get cell phone signal and I could check the closing time of Kobus se Gat. I’d planed on having lunch there and was worried the restaurant would close before I arrived.
Fortunately, they close at 5pm so I had a good few hours left to get over the Swartberg Pass itself and drop down into the Klein Karoo. Another 45 minutes of pushing my bike later and I was at Die Top, the summit of the Swartberg Pass. From there it was all downhill to roosterbrood, beer and Coca-Cola.
Upon arrival at Kobus se Gat I reassessed my options. Did I really want to sleep in a tent after that? I had planned on having breakfast at Kobus se Gat anyway as my Day 3 route passed the restaurant on the road that traces the foothills of the Swartberg, between the Cango Caves and Calitzdorp. Why make my life tougher I reasoned? And Kobus came to the rescue with a half-price deal on a cottage for the night.
The only issue was the Kobus se Gat is off the grid and shortly after my late lunch the generator blew. Without electricity the heat pump powered shower was unusable, not even cold water trickled from it, and obviously there were no lights. Fortunately, the stove was gas, so I cooked a pack of two-minute noodles and went to bed, dirty.
Day 3: Kobus se Gat to Gamka Mountain
Distance: 56.59km with 552m of climbing
The next morning, the generator had still not been repaired so I had breakfast in the restaurant and got ready to set out for Gamka Mountain. While making my final sweep of the cottage, doing an idiot check to see if I’d forgotten anything, the generator spluttered to life. The tape I’d left on started gushing water into the sink and I faced a choice: shower or hit the road.
I hit the road, weary of a repeat of the day before. The last thing I felt like was another 6-hour plus day, and the stress of missing road side coffee shops, closing before 5, on the trek across the Klein Karoo vlakte. I needn’t have worried though.
A night in a proper bed and roosterbrood for late-lunch and breakfast had clearly repaired my legs. The lack of climbing helped too, admittedly. I flew over the rolling hills of the first 22 kilometres and soon found myself at Kruisrivier.
An oasis on a dusty road Kruisrivier had been a planned stop. But I’d hardly been moving an hour so I forewent the coffee and a look in at the art gallery, choosing to press on towards the Red Stone Hills. The Kruisrivier road follows a narrow valley, carved over the millennia by the river which gave the road and the settlement at its start their names.
Near the end of the valley, just before it opens into the Klein Karoo planes the sandstone cliffs change in colour. Going from the classic grey to a deep ochre they also break from solid a krantz to weathered individual outcrops. A geologist would have a field day explaining the forces which forged these spectacular protrusions, but I lack any of the required knowledge. I can tell you that they’re worth visiting however, if the urge to take a detour of Route 62 ever strikes you.
Descending all the time I continued to tick along at a fantastic pace. Soon traffic on Route 62 became visible and I realised it was time for lunch. I’d planned to stop where my route crossed the tar road, as the Bella de Karoo coffee shop looked worth a visit.
Their milkshakes I can, now, attest are world-class. And the quaint Karoo atmosphere is very relaxing. Sitting in the back courtyard, with the building blocking the road noise one forgets that its 2021. It could be two decades earlier. Or maybe more. Except there are flat whites being served, which I doubt you would have found in the Klein Karoo in 2001.
From Bella de Karoo the roads roughened and began to trend slowly uphill towards Gamka Mountain. The Nature Reserve is an old stomping ground of mine. A place I lived from the time I was 2 weeks old, until I was 8. I can’t remember much, other than the odd flash and memories implanted from family photo albums and old stories. But it’s a place I try to revisit as often as possible.
And even if you have no previous affinity to it Gamka is worth a visit. The reserve is home to a herd of Cape mountain zebra, has leopards prowling its mountainous landscape and has endemic species of fynbos found nowhere else in the world. The campsite is pretty good too. And I was happy to set up my tent for the last night in the shelter of a boma.
With nobody staying in the stables, which have also been renovated into dorm style accommodation, I was able to use the stables kitchen to prepare my simple dinner that night. It drizzled intermittently throughout the night too, but with my gear out of the rain in the stables kitchen that wasn’t an issue. Usually, I would have had to bring it all into my tent with me. But if you can avoid having bibs you’ve spent three days riding in next to your face in a tent, you avoid it.
Day 4: Gamka Mountain to Opsoek
Distance: 57.11km with 808m of climbing
Having been so exhausted that I slept as well as I usually do at home, I woke up ready for the final day. The only issue was the lack of good coffee. I had a coffee solution, which consisted of pre-ground beans in a big tea bag. And this worked well. Sadly, my jet-boil still had two-minute noodle flavour stuck to its sides and no amount of rinsing it out could get rid of that.
Note to self: take a bowl for noodles next time. Or pack a sachet of dishwashing liquid. Chicken noodle coffee is no good!
On the road once more I followed the Olifantsrivier towards Calitzdorp. Initially on gravel and then on an old concrete road which eventually became tar. In Calitzdorp I stopped for brunch, and good coffee, at De Krans Wines.
Begrudgingly I got going again after brunch. My route back to Opsoek would be the longest stretch I did on tar for the whole trip and not only that but included the Huisrivier Pass, which I suspected lacked a decent hard shoulder. Fortunately, it was a quiet Sunday morning and there weren’t too many trucks on Route 62. Only a couple passed me while I ground my way up the Pass and one of them timed it perfectly, overtaking me when I could duck into a view point to allow him more space to get by.
I’ve driven the pass tens of times before, but cycling it gave me a new appreciation for how beautiful it is. Cut into a deep valley the Huisrivier not only links the Ladismith region of the Klein Karoo with Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn but it does so in style. It’s certainly one of the better tarred mountain passes I’ve ever ridden.
From the summit it was largely downhill to Opsoek. An easy ride with time to reflect on the previous 3 and a bit days. With a bit of distance Day 2, out of Die Hel, suddenly didn’t look so bad. In fact, it was actually pretty good… or maybe not good, just memorable. And hike-a-biking down Die Leer was definitely an experience that’ll stay with me for years.
Would I do it again? Certainly! Solo and unsupported… maybe not quiet as emphatically yes. But I’m glad I hadn’t dragged anyone else through it with a fully loaded bikepacking set-up. Misery loves company, but nobody wants to see a grown man cry in a culvert on the road from Hell…
Hell’s Teeth Tour Extras
Instagram Story Highlights