Once again Dale Morris finds a novel way to explore a destination most people outside South Africa have never heard of. Here he dons some rather brightly coloured lycra shorts and puts his leg over a bike saddle to explore the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve.
My bum was sore, my knees were knackered and my calves felt as if they had just been mugged. But I was still beaming from ear to ear. After all I had just peddled some 350km over gruelling dirt roads, past lovely scenery and wildlife, within South Africa’s Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve, and I was feeling as if I had conquered the world.
The fact that the organisers had to put my bike on their vehicle’s roof and drive me up most of the steeper sections was neither here nor there. Without their assistance I would have probably had a heart attack.
Situated in the Eastern Cape, the little-known Baviaanskloof is a stunning place to explore from the silence of a saddle. Besides the mountain views, you’ll feel fresh air sweeping through your hair, mud splattering up your back and the bees bouncing off your face; all in all, it makes for a wonderfully memorable experience. And the downhill sections are fantastic fun. I have to say the uphill portions are anything but, although a real cyclist loves such challenges and laughs in the face of serious inclines. I, however, am not a real cyclist; hence my repeated welcoming of the rescue service.
Our journey along the circular route was a fully supported and catered affair, with backup vehicles and quad-bike riding medics always on hand (the latter would have proved useful if anyone had careened off a hairy hairpin, of which there were many in the Baviaanskloof) and our evenings spent in pre-erected tents or on local farms. We even had the joy of having our meals prepared by a team of camp chefs. All we needed to worry about was the actual cycling – everything else was taken care of.
It certainly wasn’t plain sailing, though.
With all the Baviaanskloof’s ups and downs, one really needs a certain level of biking finesse and fitness to attempt it. And it must be said that I knew it wasn’t going to be an ordinary adventure even before I’d set my eyes on the hills…
“The medics have a defibrillator,” said Linette Swart, proprietor of Mountain Biking South Africa, “but if you get flattened by a black rhino I’m not sure if they have the necessary equipment to inflate you again. So please, just keep an eye out for them.”
I made a mental note to do just that.
“Oh, and watch out for the buffalo too,” she added nonchalantly.
Our two-wheel odyssey began in the peaceful and quaint rural setting of Patensie, a citrus-growing town nestled into the foothills of Cockscomb Mountain. And we were lucky enough to find ourselves cycling through its pretty orchard groves during the harvest season. Teams of rotund ladies dressed in blue overalls and armed with picking baskets came out from the orchards and onto the road to cackle at us in Afrikaans.
“What’s so funny?” I asked one of my fellow riders as we cycled past.
“Oh, I don’t’ think they have ever seen men wearing lycra tights before.”
I didn’t know if what the ladies were saying was offensive, but as my bright orange cycling shorts were obviously giving them some comical respite from toiling in the fields I couldn’t help but smile. As we left the sound of their hysterical shrieking behind us, the rural landscape soon gave way to the rugged and untamed beauty that is the hallmark of the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve.
The Baviaanskloof is nearly 2000 square kilometres in size, making it one of the largest wilderness areas in South Africa. Its expanse of mountains and valleys covers both the Kouga and Baviaans ranges, and no less than seven terrestrial biomes are represented within its boundaries. The great swaths of fragrantly floral fynbos are often dotted with beautiful sunbirds feeding from gloriously flamboyant protea flowers, and there are forests and thickets and rolling plains too. At its heart, on the only road that bisects the park, there is an agricultural enclave where hardy rural folk are increasingly turning towards tourism as an alternative to farming.
“In summer there are heat waves and drought. In winter there are floods, frosts and even snow,” Linette told me as we made our way over the first set of mountains and down into the flat arid lands of the Great Karoo. “They all combine to make the Baviaans region a very hard place for a farmer to eke out a living.”
Fortunately, since the reserve was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2004, an increasing number of visitors (so far mostly South Africans) have been travelling to the valley to enjoy its spectacular views, its scenic roads and its many gorgeous gorges and rivers. This has allowed a lot of the locals to run B&Bs rather than simply relying on farming, which is a great benefit to the community as a whole. In the long run this focus on tourism should also be much better for the wildlife as well.
There currently aren’t any lions, elephants or hyenas in the Baviaanskloof, not yet at least, but the board of Eastern Cape Parks (the organisation responsible for looking after the reserve) has recently reintroduced black rhino, buffalo and the highly endangered Cape mountain zebra. One day it is hoped that the park will once again host the full complement of wildlife, lions included. I believe this is something that will make an already exciting cycle route absolutely amazing (if not a little scary).
As it was, though, the first few days of our journey took us through the agricultural sectors, which meant we didn’t have to worry about any mishaps with wildlife. Sheep and goats, however, were a problem, and on a few occasions I found myself gridlocked as farm workers steered their flocks down the middle of the dusty road I was riding on. Even though some of them did stick their horns into my spokes, the encounters with these domesticated fluff balls were rather charming. And their bleating reminded me of the ladies laughter back at Patensie.
As is common in the Great Karoo, little white Dutch-style farmhouses dot the Baviaanskloof’s massively open landscape. And towering metal wind pumps, resembling oversized metal flowers, join giant aloes to reach for the very big sky. Drifting across these grand vistas, like two-legged dinosaurs, were flocks of domesticated ostriches.
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Everything is big in the Karoo, even the farmers.
They watched us in our lycra shorts, and offered only perplexed
expressions as we cycled past their farms. Even the owners of the quaint
homesteads that we stayed with were clearly not used to seeing visitors
from far afield. One elderly chap with coke-bottle-bottom glasses came
to my tent in the morning and tried to sell me a tortoise.
very nice if baked on an open fire and served with hot sauce,” he told
me as if it were as normal as eating boiled eggs. Which, I suppose to
him, it was. I politely declined and had porridge instead.
On the nights that we camped out in tents, we’d sit around an open fire and sip hot soup under the beautiful starry sky.
final leg of our five-day odyssey took us through the eastern sectors
of the Baviaanskloof, an area so pristine that the only man-made object
we came across was the road we were cycling on. Mountains of the most
startling reds and oranges loomed above and evergreen forests formed
tunnels through which we careened. The hills were both exhausting and
exhilarating, and the added presence of large animal poop liberally
splattered across the road made for overworked adrenal glands and
increased palpitations. It was fun though, and the more focused (or
perhaps exhausted) cyclists among us failed even to notice two black
rhinos standing at the side of the road. The pair looked unsure as to
whether to be offended by us or not. By the time they’d sussed the
situation and started to make a dramatic charge we were all long gone
due to the speeds we were travelling at.
Sadly, it was just a matter
of time before we had come full circle and arrived back at the sleepy
little town of Patensie. Group photos were taken and champagne was
sipped before we all rode off into the sunset. Not, of course, before
the citrus-picking ladies had another good laugh at our attire.
Plan your trip
Getting there Port Elizabeth, some 80km from Patensie, is the nearest airport to the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve. South African Airways (www.flysaa.com), Comair (www.comair.com) and South African Express (www.flyexpress.aero) all operate domestic flights between Port Elizabeth and the international hubs of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
When to visit The best time to cycle in the Baviaanskloof is in the spring (August to mid-October).
Visas Tourist visas are not required by most visitors.
Find out more
The Baviaanskloof is far too beautiful to be limited to cyclists. In
fact there’s plenty to do for everyone. For those with 4WDs and
motorcycles, there are many private and public roads to explore (most of
which are associated with the Kloof’s numerous guest farms). And
hikers, fear not. Most guest farms also have hiking trails on them.