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Into Africa: off-road on the Swartberg Pass

In-depth
7 Jun 2021
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In South Africa’s Karoo lies a pass like no other, where black mountains turn red and blue rivers run green

Words: James Spender Photography: Mike Massaro

Sometimes they appear as a blur, at other times as crisp outlines. If it’s overcast you won’t see them at all. But they’re always with you, stuck like glue and copying your every move, whether on your wheel or with you on theirs. Now, at nightfall, we are chasing them, but this is no ordinary sighting. Tonight the shadow peloton is in three dimensions.

We lost the sun some time ago, yet not reckoning on being out this late we neglected to strap lights to our bars. Luckily we’re being followed by our support vehicle, whose full-beams cast our shadows into the night where they gather like holograms on a screen of dust kicked up from the track.

It is surreal, two sets of silhouetted riders pounding out an identical rhythm to our own three metres ahead to our left, yet twice as tall. Epic already, and we haven’t even really begun.

Long, long road ahead

The Karoo is a vast semi-desert across South Africa’s midriff that is as difficult to qualify geographically as it is to describe in any other way than sight. Textbooks can’t quite agree on its boundaries, and if anything the Karoo is demarcated more by its lack of surface water and its vegetation of succulents, knee-high scrub and an abundance of South Africa’s national flower, the protea.

To put its sheer scale into perspective, altogether the Karoo is assumed to cover a third of South Africa, making it more than one-and-a-half times the size of Britain.

That makes the town of Prins Albert barely a pinprick on a map, but nevertheless it is perfectly appointed as the start for our ride. It took us five hours to drive here from Cape Town yesterday and that was straight after a flight from London, so I had already been on the go for 17 hours before my host suggested a twilight recce ride, which is how we got to chasing our shadow peloton in the headlights of the support pick-up truck, or bakkie as the locals call it.

Thankfully, our accommodation at the Brakdakkie Guest Cottages and a hearty dinner at Karoo Kombuis last night helped to restore my energy levels, but that doesn’t make it any easier to be out of bed and ready for a sunrise start.

Near the beginning of the South African summer the days are long, so sun up is 5.30am and we’re on the road by 6am. Nothing is open this early in Prins Albert, so breakfast comprises energy bars and instant coffee from the kettles in our rooms.

I’m riding today with Jamie Osman, who owns and runs Cape Vélo Cycle Tours. The company is based in Stellenbosch, around 360km west of Prins Albert on the periphery of Cape Town, but Jamie is happy to accommodate the needs of cycle tourists who want to ride anywhere in South Africa.

He’s a British ex-pat who’s been living over here with his South African wife, Lucy, for the last four years, and by his own admission, when he’s not running his coffee shop in town or out guiding clients, he’s poring over Google satellite images or driving out to locations with his bike to recce them. As such, he’s intimately familiar with the road we’ve come here for: the Swartberg Pass.

On setting out, it isn’t long before we come to a sign informing us that we’ve officially hit the start of the pass, meaning we have 14km of riding ahead to reach the highest point, before 10km more down the other side. All on gravel of varying grades.

I’ve had a taste of the former part, because that’s where Jamie took me for our recce ride yesterday evening. Today, though, the pass looks very different. Part-bathed in early sunlight, the dark rocks that gives the Swartberg Pass its name (Afrikaans for ‘black mountain’) are now shrouded in shadow.

Yesterday evening’s descent of this stretch of road was fast and hairy, the wind at our backs, the gradient obviously steep. This morning that wind, which would now have been in our faces, has mercifully relented, but the gradient remains as punishing as it was the day the pass was opened back in 1887.

The engineer behind it was one Thomas Bain, a kind of Brunel of the South African highways who was responsible for constructing nearly 1,000km of roads across the country. And he should be commended for doing a fantastic job too, because there is no way a road belongs in this place.

Mountains seem to slot together like teeth in a zipper, meaning the early stages see the gravel track twist awkwardly next to a flowing river, from which a seam of vivid green vegetation radiates into the arid rock.

As we climb that seam becomes little more than a thread and the crunch of our tyres overtakes the gentle splashing of water. Given that the sun has yet to kiss this side of the road I should be quite cold, but already my legs are generating enough warmth to heat 10 of me. Jamie is feeling it too; a glance in his direction elicits a response of, ‘Tortoise and hare today, mate.’ Make that two tortoises.

By the book

A quarter of the way up and I continue to marvel at the ingenuity of Bain’s engineering, his carefully plotted course having steered us along the foot of one mountain and across to the next. Craning our necks we are able to see the dry-stone walls built up and out from the rock faces to create hairpins.

These rows of little yellowing stones look military-neat next to the scraggy strata of Swartberg’s mountains, which on this side of the pass are leaning and fanned like gigantic old books poised to tip off a huge library shelf.

The road surface in the apexes is heavy with pooled scree, making what would normally be brief reprieve on a tarmac hairpin almost as arduous to negotiate as the straightened, higher-pitched sections of track between. The average gradient on this side of the pass is 7%, but on gravel it feels like double, and in some places actually is.

Finally the hairpins deliver us to their mini-summit, and the change in scenery is drastic. The mountains this side are more the colour of Moroccan sands, those rocky formations still looming like giant books on a shelf but ones whose pages had become sodden then dried, creating wobbly waves of tessellating layers.

The horizon is dense with flat-topped peaks and little else besides. I can just about make out a pathway to what appears to be a peak, but a check-in with Jamie reveals this is a false summit. The grind, literal now both in knees and under tyres, continues. The waving occupant of a battered Land Rover coming the other way provides minimal encouragement.

A brief rush of downhill feels like a reprieve for my legs, but my head knows those precious metres lost in altitude will only need to be regained, and soon enough we are toiling upwards again towards what looks more like a plain than a climb. At first glance it appears flat, but the gradient is simply lost in the vastness of the surrounding landscape.

I’d stop short of calling this easy, but compared to the going before this last section is rather pleasant, and low enough in grade that we can talk freely again. At other times, Jamie explains, this area might find itself covered in snow, the wind squalling like a sea storm, but this morning the air is relatively calm, the sun strong and the blue of a high sky only broken by a single circling bird.

If cars find it difficult to keep pace with cyclists on sinuous Alpine roads, that’s nothing to how easy we find it to dispatch vehicles on the Swartberg Pass’s southern side. Admittedly most of the cars appear to be driven by tourists who may have bitten off more than their unlucky rentals can chew, but nevertheless our bikes skip and pick their way through intricate lines too small to be of use to a 4x4’s tyres.

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Descending the rutted track – much steeper on this side – is like an exercise in extreme chess, our brains having to calculate several moves ahead so that in missing one obstacle we don’t plough into the next, or the next, or the next. Despite my brain presumably executing dozens of micro-decisions a second in this pursuit, it doesn’t always work.

Several times I have to let my wheel get sucked into an unwanted, tyre-shredding furrow, the lesser of two evils: the other being a probable off. I’m overcorrecting all over the place, skipping out of danger one minute only to ride headlong into even greater peril the next.

My bike’s headset must be working overtime because I haven’t properly sat on the saddle in some while. We pause briefly to get some photos, whereupon a German pulls up in his car. ‘Where is your suspension?’ he asks with mock incredulity, before he wheelspins away.

I can’t help thinking the driver has a point, as we pick our way down the remaining rollercoaster of slopes and bumps. It is, in the truest definition, exhilarating, and I’m disappointed more than relieved when the roughness of the road peters out then relents entirely as it gives itself back over to tarmac.

Big birds

Having conquered the Swartberg Pass one and a half times now – downhill on the northern side yesterday, up and over from Prins Albert in the north today – I’d wager that the north-to-south run is eminently more gratifying.

What few vehicles there have been seemed to be approaching from the south, making the north side the quieter one. The climb from the north seems to me more picturesque too, and the descent to the south much more open, more technical and hence more fun. But we’re far from leaving the entertainment there.

Long, rolling tarmac carries us towards Oudtshoorn, the town Thomas Bain had wanted so dearly to connect to Prins Albert, but rather than continue all the way on the smooth stuff, Jamie signals for us to take a sharp right and we leave the road for another dirt track.

This time the surface is wide, flat and relatively smooth, and it becomes obvious why. We’re on a farm service road, only instead of grazing cattle or growing corn, these farms are rearing ostriches by the hundred.

We pull over onto a verge strewn with enough feathers to make a haute couturier weep, and while at first the startled ostriches turn-tail and run, after some minutes an inquisitive few start to sidle over, and are soon joined by more and more until eventually a flock has gathered at the fence to peer quizzically at us.

I’ve not seen one up close like this before, and I’m surprised at how tall they are, their rotund, feathery bodies perched on shaven stilts, necks like long arms, heads like bent wrists. We eye each other in silence for some time, before they eventually lose interest and go back to their feed troughs like trussed-up liver birds round a handbag.

A brief pause from riding comes in Oudtshoorn, where we stop for coffee and lunch. I have mixed feelings about ordering the ostrich wrap, but I figure it’s too late for this particular bird anyway, so I might as well give it a try.

It turns out to taste a little like tough beef. But onwards and upwards – or southwards – we must still go, so with cafe-heavy legs we remount and pedal gingerly out of town.

Afternoon grind

We’ve barely been back on the road for a few kilometres before we make a sharp deviation to the left. One river crossing later, the same trick happens as before: a tarmac road, once so smooth, fades and melds into gravel. This stuff reminds me a lot of footage of Tuscan bike races – chalky white, as solid as concrete, with a marbling of looser stones on top.

It wends its way through huge working farms of yet more ostriches, as well as groves of olives and citrus and even prickly pear. This landscape is flat and overwhelmingly featureless, the road a never-ending treadmill much like that which took us into the Karoo from Cape Town, only here the vanishing horizon is occasionally obscured by chalk-puff clouds, the telltale sign left behind by recently departed vehicles.

This off-road progress is a gruelling affair. Thinking the end is tantalisingly close, I find my brain playing that dangerous game of calculating speed, distance and so time. The knock-on effect is that, like schoolkids packing their bags long before the bell, my legs begin to check out prematurely, one muscle group at time. A war of attrition now ensues, but the end is very much in sight.

We traverse a short section of main road before the gravel track regains itself and winds through pines and up a short, steep rise. Suddenly it’s all change, the hills rise into mountains shaped and coloured like swollen Hebridean moors, an abandoned train track hoves into view and vanishes into the mountains’ mossy clefts.

This is the Montagu Pass, our final test and oddly, I’ll learn later, one of the few passes in South Africa not built by Thomas Bain. And it couldn’t be more different to the Swartberg, either. The ascent from this side is barely 3km long and genteel in slope, and the descent bereft of much view for the same length, overlooked instead by trees.

But when the foliage does thin, the views are no less substantial and the 10km of languorously sweeping, heavily rutted roads every bit as fast and as technical. But where at the beginning of our ride the road disappeared into uninhabited desert and its great unknown, now I can see civilisation emerging in the distance.

I feel suddenly guilty for wishing this ride would come to a close, as it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to cycle in a place this stunning again.

Double pass

Follow our Swartberg Pass adventure

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/or3/swartberg. This route is a point-to-point so you’ll either need a support vehicle or you’ll need to carry extra kit and arrange accommodation at the finish in George. Otherwise riders could simply ride the Swartberg Pass and return to Prins Albert, although we would recommend a support vehicle anyway – the Karoo isn’t a place to find yourself stuck and alone.

Leave Prins Albert on the R407, heading south. After 6km the road splits, and at the signpost take the R328 onto the gravel track. This is the Swartberg Pass on which you’ll remain for the next 24km. The top comes around 21km into the ride, the bottom around 31km. Follow the R328 onto tarmac until the big white sign for ‘Cango Ostrich Farm’ at 58km, then turn right, then left, down the gravel track.

Follow the road to Oudtshoorn, where it segues into Jan Van Riebeeck Road. Turn left at the bottom of Jan Van Riebeeck on Voortrekker Street, keeping an eye for Queen’s Mall on the left, which is good for a stop (try the Café Soleil). Leave town on Langenhoven Road/R62, turning left onto an unnamed road with a white and blue sign for ‘Diesel Depot’ on its corner.

This road eventually becomes gravel. At 80km, make a right and follow this road towards Camfer, over the N9/R62 and onto the Montagu Pass, which is signed in green, at around 116km. Follow the natural road until 133km, where this ride ends at the intersection with the N12.

The rider’s ride

Specialized Diverge Comp, £3,060, specialized.com

The Diverge has been around a few years now but the latest version is right on the gravel money, with room for 42mm 700c tyres or 47mm 650b, and plenty of mounting points. What really marks this bike out, however, is the Future Shock, a sprung unit sandwiched between the stem and head tube designed to smooth bumps and vibrations up front.

The effect is immediately noticeable in terms of feel, but also visually, with the Future Shock compressing and recoiling like a mini-pogo stick beneath the bars. Unlike the previous version seen on the Specialized Roubaix (which has since been updated with this latest shock), the spring rate is progressive, meaning it takes more force – ie bigger bumps – through the stroke to fully compress the 20mm of travel on offer. That means less bottoming out, although truly big whacks still compress the shock with some ease.

Buy the Specialized Diverge Comp now from Leisure Lakes Bikes

In that regard, the Future Shock didn’t isolate me entirely from the road and is not as effective at damping big hits as a suspension fork. But for the high frequency, low amplitude chatter of gravel riding, it does an excellent job of preventing numb hands and arm pump while remaining lightweight.

At the back the CG-R seatpost aims to do a similar job via its Z-shape, designed to promote flex under load. I can’t really claim to have felt the same benefit as the Future Shock, though the Diverge is a very comfortable bike.

This bike is more than just a handful of components, however, and it was the racy geometry that impressed me most, lending the Diverge sharp and responsive handling (similar fork trail numbers to a relaxed road bike certainly help) and leaving it flighty enough to skip and jump when needed. An all-round fun ride that was very well suited to this terrain.

How we did it

Travel

We flew direct with British Airways from Heathrow to Cape Town, which in November cost us around £650 return with 23kg baggage. Once in Cape Town we were driven around by Kyle from Cape Vélo Cycling Tours. While buses, some trains and taxis are available, the country is vast so your best bet is a guide and support car.

Check flights to Cape Town now on Expedia

Accommodation and food

We stayed at Brakdakkie Guest Cottages in Prins Albert, where individual stone cottages (which are essentially studios equipped with kitchen, bathroom and private terrace) start at around £40 per night. See brakdakkie.co.za. We ate at Karoo Kombuis in Prins Albert, run by the wonderful Denise. But be warned – phone ahead (there is no website) to be sure she’s open. And don’t be late or you’ll get a bigger roasting than the lamb.

Check out places to stay in Prins Albert now on Booking.com

Thanks

The biggest of thank yous to Jamie Osman, who runs Cape Vélo Cycle Tours (capevelo.com) and Coffeeworks in Stellenbosch (facebook.com/coffeeworks.ss). Coffeeworks does the best coffee in town (trust us, we tried them all), and Cape Vélo organises all manner of gravel and road rides, from local loops around Stellenbosch’s many trails and national parks, to further flung paths less ridden such as the Swartberg Pass.

Thanks also to Kyle Basson for driving the support car and doling out local wisdom way beyond his years, and to Lucy Osman, for letting us borrow her husband for the week.