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Out of Africa: HotChillee Rainmaker Rollercoaster gravel ride

In-depth
5 Oct 2018
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Words Peter Stuart Photography Nick Muzik

'Is that a spider burrow? I think there could be baboon spiders in there,’ Nik warns me with a tinge of concern. Normally I’m very afraid of spiders, but right now I don’t care.

My head feels like it’s about to explode, and in desperate need of shade I nestle closer under the shrubbery and more intimately into possible poisonous spider habitat.

We’ve just finished the unnamed climb and descent of the R322 road, a wide and exposed gravel track so steep that a single missed pedal stroke could result in a long and difficult walk.

It could stake a strong claim for being the Alpe d’Huez of South Africa, except ridden beneath a cloudless sky in 36°C heat.

As a result, no force on Earth could persuade me out of my rare spot of shade.

On the plus side, there’s an amazing view of the Langeberg mountain range’s ragged cliff faces and a thick wilderness of trees named locally as the angry man’s forest.

I try to put poisonous spiders out of my mind.

This morning began in the pastoral greens of the town of Swellendam, a few hours east of Cape Town.

Since then, however, our route has taken us into the desert of the Little Karoo. This is a test event for the HotChillee Rainmaker Rollercoaster gravel race, an adventurous seven-day point-to-point journey in South Africa.

It’s the first race of its kind, and I’m a human guinea pig ahead of the inaugural staging in October.

So far my main observation is that Stage 3’s 100km on gravel is proving a lot tougher than 100km on tarmac.

As for a climb of 380 vertical metres at 11% – well, that would be hard on tarmac, but it has absolutely broken me on a gravel track.

I squeeze my water bottle but only vapour emerges. I skipped the previous water refill to save weight, and I now realise that was a foolish choice.

Fortunately, it isn’t long before we see a plume of dust ahead, and I know that Rohan, a South African flower farmer and the organiser of the event, is not far off bearing gallons of ice-cold water.

He jumps out of his Jeep with a smile. ‘We don’t call it the Alpe for nothing!’ he laughs.

Moments later, a northerner named Richard rolls down the hill with a grimace.

‘Put my fookin bike on’t fookin trailer!’ he says, then marches around the 4x4 and slumps onto the passenger seat.

He’s normally a rather mild-mannered chap, so we can’t help but chuckle at his rage.

To be fair, his mood is justified. Today has been epic. We still have 20km left to ride, though, so Nik and I wearily lift ourselves up, pat away the dust and dirt and take to our bikes again, jittering along the cracked trail.

The Cape Crusader

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s wind the clock back a couple of days to Stage 1.

We’ve just entered the Bontebok National Park on a leg-spinner intended primarily to animate us after the drive from Cape Town (it will be a timed prologue for those racing the Rollercoaster).

It’s 16km long and flat, but this is far from a dull lap around the block.

Having entered the Bontebok National Park, I’m truly awed, even if most of my attention is going into staring at my stem as I try to keep pace at the front.

We’re riding along a chalky path that cuts through vast green plains of grazing antelope, but what began as a stroll through the gravel tracks has since evolved first into a canter and now into a full-on race, interrupted only by mass stops to snap away pictures of the terrain.

In the distance are the deep ridges of the Langeberg range. It’s a little surreal.

The locals chuckle, not only at our obsessive picture-taking of their backyard, but also at our foolhardy competitive efforts.

The days ahead of us are long, and the current pancake-flat profile is the exception to what is otherwise an energy-sapping rule.

In terms of pure distance, there’s a lot of riding ahead of us – 520km to be specific – and little of it will be as smooth going as today.

The Rollercoaster is split over seven days, with the leg-breaker on the R322 coming on day three and a Queen Stage on day six primed to tip the balance from enjoyable to challenging.

At the front it will be an unsupported race, but from the middle to the back it will be more of a mass-start sportive supported by ride captains in the style of the Cape Rouleur or Haute Route.

The itinerary is set out like a race, starting in Swellendam and ending in Plettenberg Bay, with no vehicle transfers.

Scanning the route we’ll cover over the next six days, something strikes me: there are few if any Strava segments, and no Instagram hashtags for what we’re about to face.

It isn’t exactly unchartered territory, but in digital terms it may as well be on a different planet.

Rohan warns us to take our tyre pressures down to the high 20s or low 30s, as there will be trails that push the definition of ‘gravel’ to its limits.

Rough and tumble

‘Jesus, that was harder than Pen-y-Ghent Lane,’ says Nik, travel guru and veteran of the Three Peaks Cyclocross Challenge.

We’ve just hurtled our way down the steepest descent of the day. It’s a fire road, a rough, rocky track that tips at what I’d estimate to be around 45% – controlled falling, in essence.

Already my time here has helped tune my off-road riding skills. I’ve been carefully working on my position on the bike, and switching my brake balance from the front almost entirely to the rear, which I’ve been locking regularly. It’s a steep learning curve – literally.

Soon we’re back on the ascent, and we’ve been warned to keep an eye out for baboons, a pack of which jogged across the lawn of our lodge last night.

The second day is a short but highly technical test of ability, which despite being barely over 30km takes more than three hours to complete.

The climbs have been savagely steep on narrow, ragged trails, the descents slow and cautious.

They’re in total contrast to the start of the 107km Alpe ride, which takes place on private farmland in a field full of boulders.

The course tracks the tyre marks from quad bikes used by the farmers, and it takes some skill on the steeper inclines not to lose traction and roll off into the rough grass.

Once the field is behind us we track a narrow gravel strip that winds alongside the Buffeljags River, with a sheer drop to our left and a 1,000m peak blotting out the sky ahead.

It’s a scene I won’t forget, partly because of its sheer beauty but also because of the technical challenge.

At one point the rapid, meandering track has me launching myself into a lavender bush to avoid toppling off the verge into the water below.

We cross the vast Buffeljags Dam and gradually the terrain surrounding the chalky road transforms into a rich tapestry of wildlife, all tinted with a yellowy-orange hue.

It’s all very pleasant… that is, until the heat creeps up and we happen upon the great Alpe d’Huez of the Southern Cape, where I take refuge in my spider bush.

The Little Karoo, where we are now, is truly remarkable, and our exploration of the region finishes in the expansive hilly farmland near Riversdale, where surrounded by zebra and bontebok antelope we camp beneath the stars.

Two easier days follow. The first actually takes in more than 1,500m of climbing over the Langeberg range, but it isn’t overly hard going.

That’s followed by a day of concrete roads through the region of Oudtshoorn – the ostrich capital of the world, where ostrich feathers were once thought of as ‘white gold’.

As we roll along the miles of farmland we regularly have ostriches running alongside us, and it feels as though we’ve dropped into Jurassic Park.

The wildlife only gets wilder, however, and the day ends in a nature reserve and popular safari spot.

I scan warily for roaming big game as we near the finish, and make sight of a hippo close to our tents, though safely confined to a walled-off watering hole.

Stage 6 is billed as the hardest day of the trip, and we depart in the dark before dawn.

I feel drunk with fatigue, but excited about a journey that will take us to the wide ocean and the end of our Rollercoaster journey.

The African Queen

‘Ooons!’ I can’t quite make out the call. A car, perhaps? Maybe a dip in the road?

‘Boons!’ It comes again, from a different voice. I tap the brakes with caution, and moments later I find myself shouting it too, slightly more successfully: ‘Baboons!’

A pack of them is spread across the road. A few have taken up an impromptu chase of the riders up front as they pass, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the 17% ramp that the baboons are sat directly in front of.

Suddenly the adrenaline is pumping and it helps the entire group find new legs as we press on up the incline, too afraid to look back.

‘They were just being playful,’ a South African named Penny reassures me.

We’re 80km into today’s ride, the Queen Stage of the trip, and sprinting up that climb has left my legs shrieking at me. Ironically they sound a lot like agitated primates.

Penny remains beside me as I settle down after the sprint. Penny is 66 and has won her age group event at the Cape Town Cycle Tour a remarkable 25 times in a row, including at this year’s 109km international sportive, where her average speed was over 35kmh. 

She has also comfortably kept pace with all of us on the steepest and loosest terrain of the Rollercoaster so far.

As well as schooling us in climbing, she also knows South Africa inside out. She explains that the second half of today’s ride is taking us over seven valleys that form part of the Garden Route.

Each valley offers around 200m of climbing, all of it on challenging dusty trails. The corresponding descents rattle my hands to the point of numbness, and I’m grateful that my Specialized’s suspension system has at least subdued the battering.

I ask Penny something that was put to me time and again before I came out – the danger of cycling in South Africa, given the harrowing crime rate in the country.

She looks at me with confusion. ‘I’ve never given it a thought. Cycling in the countryside isn’t dangerous,’ she says confidently.

As we roll a little further, she asks me where I’m from, and I respond that I’m from London. ‘My goodness, that must be terrifying!’ she says, the irony not lost on me.

We’re nearing the end of a long and varied day when we get to enjoy a rare tea stop at a toll house after the day’s big climb up the 750m of vertical ascent to Montagu Peak.

The terrain has mostly been too barren for cafes, and our lunches have for the most part been eaten in pop-up tents.

The toll house serves tea and cakes, and for a moment it’s as though we’ve been transported into quintessential Cumbria.

By the time we’ve taken on our last valley and approach the final climb, we’ve ticked off 140km over six and a half hours.

It’s a 250m ascent, with a 15% ramp. I let Penny lead me out and then empty all of my reserves to the summit, where a cold beer and an elated sense of achievement await.

The Plettenberg procession

Our final day’s ride from Knysna to Plettenberg Bay is a procession, accompanied by students from Kwano Cycling, a charitable initiative set to benefit from consultancy firm Rainmaker’s proceeds from the Rollercoaster.

The initiative gives children from the township that sits above the holiday spot of Plettenberg Bay the chance to enter an academic and sporting tuition programme centred around mountain biking.

The route takes us through an elephant forest on a trail that lasts 17km and poses some of the most technical challenges.

The boys from Kwano Cycling have long since shot ahead, aside from a few overwhelmingly compassionate young men who hold back to nurse us over the tricky terrain.

At one point I misjudge a pool of water and end up half-covered in mud, flailing like a baby elephant. A young rider called Sipho pulls me out of the puddle and encourages me along.

The Kwano programme is a reminder of the conflict and inequality that still exists throughout the majestic Southern Cape, and it’s quite an inspiration to see the cycling community pitch in to improve lives deprived of both sport and education.

They are the only cycling team in the regional league to be based out of a township, and yet they are one of the best.

A single 170m ascent on wide gravel tracks is the last challenge of the event. I attempt to race Nik and the Kwano boys, but having seen them leave me in their dusty wake I opt to stop and take some photos instead.

Atop the incline we roll through the township of Kwanokuthula, past the rudimentary houses of the Kwano Cycling team, then descend to the vast villas and estates of Plettenberg Bay.

Desert and forest, tarmac and trail, rich and poor, our ride through South Africa has been filled with the stark divides so typical of the nation.

We roll up to the shores of the bay, where the organisers have gallons of cola and sheets of pizza.

The young African racers admire our kit, and so Richard (the northerner who demanded his ‘fookin bike’ be ‘put on’t fooking trailer’) hands over his brand new Oakley sunglasses to a young rider who had nursed him up the final climb without hesitation.

We agree later that none of us have ever seen a young man so elated.

Setting off from the Bontebok Park back in Swellendam seems a long, long time ago.

I’ve had to learn new skills quickly or risk tumbling down rubble verges, and have taken on 200m inclines so steep and loose they have felt more like 2,000m mountains.

It feels as though we’ve travelled very far indeed. All that said, drive me back to Swellendam, give me a rest day and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

 

Up, down, up, down: Our ride on the world’s longest Rollercoaster

For the full route, visit hotchillee.com/event/rainmaker-rollercoaster. The ride starts in Swellendam, with two round-trip rides and then begins the journey to Plettenberg Bay. The stages are as follows:

STAGE 1: (Prologue): Bontebok National Park, 16km with 135m elevation
STAGE 2: Swellendam to Swellendam, 57km with 1,150m elevation
STAGE 3: Swellendam to Riversdale, 107km with 2,000m elevation
STAGE 4: Riversdale to Calitzdorp, 109km with 2,100m elevation
STAGE 5: Calitzdorp to Oudtshoorn, 53km with 350m elevation
STAGE 6: Oudtshoorn to Knysna, 140km with 2,150m elevation
STAGE 7: Knysna to Plettenberg Bay, 74km with 1,650m elevation

 

The rider’s ride

Specialized S-Works Diverge, £8,500, specialized.com 

The S-Works Diverge was built for this kind of event. The bike is a top-end gravel racer, yet it fits the bill of the emerging trend of ‘credit card touring’, and is well suited to the less competitive end of the Rollercoaster too.

Taking the Diverge onto its intended terrain proved that despite its fancy paintjob and neat electronic components it really is as tough as hell.

I bounced my way down 45% fire roads half out of control, pounding on every contact point, and the bike held up without a scratch. All apart from the carbon saddle rails, which sheared halfway through the trip.

The Future Shock really showed its merit on tough rocky descents, with the front suspension offering great control and (relative) comfort.

At the same time, the Diverge was really speedy – on tarmac sections, I’d pump up the PSI and happily cruise along above 30kmh.

The 1x clutched derailleur is a must for this sort of ride, and my only regret was not converting the tyres to tubeless.

During an ordeal like this you really get to know a bike, and I couldn’t be fonder of the Diverge.

How we did it 

THE RAINMAKER ROLLERCOASTER

The first Rainmaker Rollercoaster will take place from 6th-12th October 2018. The 2019 dates are confirmed for 5th-11th October.

Entries for October 2018 start from £745, including all meals and accommodation. Participants can race for prize money or join HotChillee’s ride captains at a more manageable pace.

Visit hotchillee.com/event/rainmaker-rollercoaster for details.

TRAVEL

We flew with Kenya Airways, changing in Nairobi, which offered a great addition to the trip as well as cutting costs. Once in Cape Town, HotChillee arranged transfers and travel. 

ACCOMMODATION

HotChillee offers three tiers of accommodation for the Rollercoaster, from basic domed tents (included in the entry fee), to luxury tents and a top-tier B&B option if you’re willing to pay extra. Contact HotChillee for more details.

THANKS

Many thanks to Sven Thiele and Charlotte Montague of HotChillee for arranging our trip and to organiser Rohan Germishuys for his fantastic support – particularly when it came to keeping us hydrated. 

Thanks also to Kenya Airways and Westgo, the official tourist board of the Western Cape, for helping to make the trip happen.