After a week of leisurely cycling in the Swartberg – that high, saw-toothed mountain barrier at the bottom of Africa that divides the Great Karoo semi-desert from the green and productive Little Karoo – I have reaffirmed my belief that cycling is enjoyable only if the road is flat.
And, take it from me, mountains look more spectacular when viewed from below.
Nevertheless, with much whining and gibbering, I was persuaded to venture with seven companions (all very fit and all just over 60) into spending five days in Prince Albert and exploring the Swartberg by bicycle.
Near the top of the pass a road branches off to the right… and I can’t resist using this tiresome cliché, from where “it descends into Hell”. More correctly, it zigzags down a narrow gravel road with hairpin bends and precipices into Die Hel, 58km away.
None of us cycled UP the main Swartberg pass though – on the way back, some cycled DOWN the last 10km. But we did cycle the first safe 15km along the notorious pass to Die Hel.
Too much has been written of this hamlet for the need to describe it. Or even to describe the sheer thrill of descending to it. Suffice to say, when you get down there there is no there there. Although there is quite a pretty wooded gulley with a gurgling stream, and you might see kudu, klipspringer and bushbuck.
Samuel Johnson once described a place as “worth seeing but not worth going to see”. In the case of Die Hel it’s the opposite – not really worth seeing but if you like excitement it’s worth going to see.
The two families who live down there prefer to call the place Gamkaskloof – the “ravine of the lion”. We cycled along the first few safe kilometres to the point where the pass begins its plunge and at this point were greeted by a surreal scene, a marshland aflame with red hot pokers framed by sepia mountains and on the edge of the vlei a long table with white starched linen laden with an unforgettable gourmet breakfast. All of it had been carried up ahead of us from Prince Albert.
This was, after all, the “Gourmet Karoo Cycle Tour”, organised by Escape Cycle Tours, a well-established Joburg enterprise run by long-distance cyclists Liz Szabo and Chris Murray. Liz has the distinction of having cycled up the 25km main Swartberg Pass without getting off. Having been towed up a steep hill by Chris (using two joined inner tubes as a rope) I have no doubt it would be child’s play to him as well.
During breakfast, a minibus arrived driven by a man named Billy who was there to take us down to Die Hel. He later told us he had, years ago, twice driven over the edge and, on one of those occasions, at night, plunged 300m into a ravine from which he crawled back to the road and walked home. He piloted us down and, after a picnic lunch, up again in an exhibition of faultless driving.
A day earlier we had been transported the 1 000km from Joburg – with our bikes on a trailer – in Escape Tours’ 10-seater bus, stopping occasionally for a snack. The bus followed us for the next five days. At any stage we could signal to be picked up – which I did a few times, choosing to sit with the sandwiches and shouting encouragement through the window to my labouring companions.
But for sheer grandeur it is the main Swartberg Pass that most impresses. I had motored up it years ago but only now, not having to drive, did I become aware of the narrowness and the vivid colours of those towering cliffs whose strata are sometimes vertical and at times folded like a blanket.
The Swartberg is, in fact, a typical fold mountain range that was slowly, over aeons of time, shoved north as the Antarctic Plate came into collision with the Africa Plate. One wonders at the sheer genius of Thomas Bain who engineered the pass through this mangled range. He built 13 heroic passes in SA; this was his last before his death in 1893.
I am really a downhill sort of person and I was in my element one day when we cycled the 80km or so east from Prince Albert to De Rus. Apart from a 3km climb which comes after the first 20km, it is downhill all the way.
At the top of the climb, where my companions had patiently waited for me, it was suggested that I set off first on the downhill section. “We’ll give you a few hours to get ahead,” somebody said unkindly. But it was some time before they did.
I was clocking over 60km/h as I freewheeled the entire 49.9km from the summit through the breathtaking Meiringspoort to De Rus.
I now wonder if this is not the world’s longest downhill on tar. I recall cycling in Spain and being told about a road in the Sierra Nevada National Park which was the “longest downhill road in Europe”. It was a mere 12.5km long.
For the entire five days we used Prince Albert as our base. From there we cycled out to wine farms and an olive farm and, one morning we were invited to what I understood to be a pig farm to see “the harvesting of the pigs” – an event I was not greatly looking forward to. It entailed a 25km ride along a wide gravel road through rocky Karoo scenery before reaching a well-watered valley and the farm itself.
I was greatly relieved to see it was a fig farm. The Weltevrede Fig Farm has been in the same family for six generations. There, after watching the harvesting of the figs, we had another memorable gourmet breakfast on the farm stoep hosted by the owner, Liezl de Klerk, an elegant young woman, still in her 20s, who would have looked more at home on a Parisian catwalk.
Our accommodation was in 200-year-old cottages belonging to an establishment called African Relish on Prince Albert’s main street. The proprietor did what so many in the corporate world dream of doing – he abandoned city life.
Jeremy Freemantle and his wife Di left Cape Town, moved to Prince Albert and established a “recreational cooking school” in a specially designed structure filled with fresh air and sunlight, and an adjacent restaurant and garden.
The gourmet side of the tour was something of a culinary adventure. There, the eight of us had three afternoon lessons in preparing all manner of dishes all heavily influenced by traditional South African recipes and using locally grown ingredients.
Jeremy has discovered many Karoo recipes passed down by word of mouth but never published. He researches original recipes and experiments with them, and so we learnt to make slaphakskeentjies, panzanella, cheese soufflés and ambitious roasts.
He even describes how to choose and maintain a good set of knives and pots and pans. The three-hour sessions could well be dubbed “fun with food” for they were filled with humour. (www.africanrelish.com)
We helped in the preparation of dishes served in the restaurant that evening.
Prince Albert’s sunny and peaceful main street has, fortunately, remained undiscovered by the likes of Pick n Pay and KFC with their bland architecture that has tended to make every town centre look like the next. Prince Albert has retained its Karoo “dorpie” character and its 19th century human scale. Its church steeple remains the focal point.
One evening we went on a “village ramble” with Ailsa Tudhope, historian and story teller, and were transported back 200 years. On another we accompanied an astronomer, Professor (retired) Hans Daehne and his wife Dr Tilanie Daehne (www.astrotours.co.za) into the semi-desert with its crystal-clear atmosphere to study the needle-sharp stars and peer into his telescope at the planets.
We cycled a lot around town (it was marvellously flat) and I thought of Uncle Remus’s words: “I journeyed far, I journeyed fas; I glad I found dis place at las.”