Dongas, daisies and dead-ends in the Maskamberge

Zanie's picture

Points: 9

Gifberg. The only landmark on the most tedious stretch of the N7. What’s up there? That question led Lance to Mountain Passes SA’s website; “connecting the dots” between passes in the Maskam mountain range.

I had finally made semi-peace with sand, which gave Lance free reign on route planning. Many of the connect-the-dots roads, and even one pass, was found by eyeballing Google Earth for tracks, as they weren’t marked on Google Maps or Lance’s earlier version of Tracks4Africa.

I like the free-reign Lance, as it ended up being one of the most interesting routes I have ever ridden, including stunning (and steep) passes, many dead-ends, a festivity of flowers (and falls) and (for the newly converted) plenty sand.

This video sums up our trip:

 


Day 01: The day of (the most) sand

Trip Statistics
Distance: 428 km
Elapsed time: 10:25:27 
Moving time: 08:08:05
Average speed: 41 km/h
Average moving speed: 53 km/h

Click here for a link to our route on Google Maps (the route ended short of Nieuwoudtville due to Google Maps gremlins).

It would be a small group of four on this ride: me and Lance, and his parents Ernie and Lynette. We had decided on the town of Nieuwoudtville as our base; largely due to a lack of other accommodation options at the start of the flower season (early August).

You could reach Nieuwoudtville from Cape Town in 3.5 hours if you take the direct route, but that is boring. Lance added some fun loops and our ride time tripled.

We left Cape Town at 08:30 and climbed off tar at the Algeria / Cederberg turn-off. The Olifants River was quite full. Last time we were there, Lance played (and got stuck) in the sand next to the bridge.

Next to Clanwilliam Dam:

Sections of the road appeared to be undergoing maintenance and were quite rough.

In Clanwilliam, we stopped at a lovely place called Velskoendraai for lunch. The owner was very friendly and plied us with some of his own special brew called “pittekou” – literally “chew pips.” It consisted of granadilla and something with kick.

Pittekou:

Our next point of interest was the Bushman’s Cave Open-Air Theatre, reached over Kraaibosberg Pass.

Kraaibosberg Pass:

Bushman’s Cave Open-Air Theatre:

The theatre is used for a variety of events, including weddings and concerts. On arrival, I promptly dug myself a hole. I managed to get out by rocking the bike back-and-forth and out. Note the nice shady parking provided in the background.

Some bushman paintings can be found when you hike a short distance. When I say short I mean short. I don’t walk far in 2kg per boot.

The breath-taking view from the top:

We took a turn-off to the left roughly 1km after Bushman’s Cave. Here the road started to get sandy. Lance lost control in a spectacular manner, but unfortunately Ernie was not close enough to catch the action, other than a distant puff of sand.

Check the S-bend track in the sand:

Lance decided to put the bike down after the second weave, rather than risk a high-side.

This was a road that demanded tribute through downed bikes. It decided to up the stakes (i.e. add more sand) until the next victim fell.

Ernie and Lynette recovering:

Lance adding a helping hand:

The sand did not let up. Ernie, with a heavier bike and pillion, was not having a fun time. 

I was somewhere up ahead, which is why I’m missing from the montage above. With my recent Namibia experience serving as a bolster, I used my throttle to my advantage and managed to stay upright without dabbing. Victory!

I still could not believe how far I had come. Until a lightbulb moment 3 months previously, my only way of dealing with sand was to paddle or cry or both. Slightly more than a year before this trip, I would not even ride more than 40-60km/h on gravel.

Our next pass was Brand-se-Berg:

We stopped in some shade at the Doring River crossing, 8km before the road join the N7. At this point I noticed that my bike was leaking black stuff.

Note the dot of black stuff on the ground close to my side-stand:

My bike had recently been serviced. The black stuff was guesstimated as a potential overfill of oil. It turned out we were wrong. More on that later.

The bush behind my bike in the photo above was absolutely covered in these large critters:

We had to make an emergency stop, because Lance was being munched / stung by some other critter (we didn’t find it).

Time was ticking on, but we had a whole mountain pass that we wanted to explore. Gifberg Pass was beautiful in the late afternoon light.

The steepest bit was tarred:

We encountered a random mini-pass somewhere in the backwaters behind Gifberg. I almost lost it on the one hairpin (in a slow tortoise-like way).

Running out of road:

Amazing rock formation:

Lance’s quest for farm-road short-cuts between passes resulted in yet more sand.

I’m amazed Lance could find his way around, despite the various splits in the track.

I had a couple of wobbles…

…but being two-up was even harder.

The view was beautiful though.

And you could smell the flowers.

It was past 5pm and we were nowhere near a tar road yet. Our goal shifted from “reach accommodation before dark” to “reach tar before dark.”

We found a water crossing. I stopped to inspect, being ever-cautious. Lance charged through. Ok. So I guess it is safe.

Lynette had decided to walk across and take some nice photos (e.g. the one of me above). We had no shortage of photographers / videographers on this trip; with 2 GoPros and Lynette snapping away with both her cell phone and camera. The fact that there was almost 8 hours’ worth of footage to work through is the reason my trip report is 4 months behind schedule. Most of the photos here are snapshots from GoPro footage.

Ernie with his bike-submarine:

My spotlights stopped working from this point onwards. It turned out that the spotlights’ fuse was not waterproof.

We had one last bit of sand…

…and some more wobbles (with flowers as scenery)…

…before we hit Ouberg Pass (one of the many Ouberg Passes in SA).

Given the very remote location, this sign was particularly intriguing.

We had some altercations with wayward sheep. First they ran in front of me (at least not too close), from the right- to the left-hand side of the road. The grass was obviously not as green as rumour had it, so they made an about-turn and promptly decided to go straight back where they came from.

Lance’s view as he went past:

Ernie and Lynette’s view when the sheep decided to high-tail it right in front of them.

A complete stop was required.

The road became mucky…

…causing the third fall of the day.

This particular stretch of road was peppered with gates. Lynette, as the pillion, usually did us the favour of opening and closing them.

One of my favourite Afrikaans sayings: “Die son trek water” (the sun pulls water, i.e. it is getting late).

We reached our last gate and the tar roughly 20 min after sunset.

We arrived at our accommodation, Van Zijl Guesthouses, in the dark. Supper was had at Nedersetting. The people were a bit touchy about us parking on the lawn close to their guesthouses, so we had to move. The meat-eaters’ meals were great (I had potjiekos), but the vegetarian dishes were really not value for money, considering they had a one-price flat rate for all supper meals and small-town folk don’t really understand or cook vegetarian dishes. A great discovery at our accommodation: electric blankets!

Day 02: The day of dead-ends (and spectacularly steep passes)

Trip Statistics
Distance: 224 km
Elapsed time: 08:17:35 
Moving time: 06:51:12
Average speed: 27 km/h
Average moving speed: 33 km/h

I could not recreate the above map as a whole in Google Maps, as some of the roads are not recorded on their maps. I will try to create short map snippets where possible. The very northern “spike” is where a pass, known by locals as “The Hell,” is situated. The dead-ends are all passes that go nowhere.

Our accommodation for our entire trip:

After yesterday’s early start, we headed off at a more respectable time of 9:15.

Some horses taking flight:

Lance and I would explore little side-roads every now and then.

This one went past a ruin:

Lance got tired of my boring, pussy-footing water-crossings. He said I should spice things up for the camera. I did…and had to contend with wet boots for the next hour or so.

We headed north to the start of The Hell Pass. I’ve created a Google Maps track up to the pass, but it doesn’t want to route you through the pass.

The turn-off to the pass is rather obscure and the road immediately gets rougher.

Me:

Lance:

Forever view:

At one point, there was a tremendous drop to the right, where the cliff face retreats back right to the road. I didn’t want to get anywhere near it.

There were a couple of rock steps to navigate. I would rather do this road down than up. I find steps easier to navigate when going downhill. All that I generally do is hang on to the bike and trust that everything will be ok, even when choosing the worst line possible (i.e. to the right on the pictures below). There were some intermittent clangs from an abused bash-plate, but the bike survived. Sort of. My mechanic discovered a snapped sub-frame bolt in my bike’s post-trip appointment.

We finally reached the bottom of this amazing pass.

Not that the road got any better.

Click here for a Google Maps track of the next bit of our route.

I love these interesting roads.

Beware the mud…

Some more utterly lonely roads across the Knersvlakte (“grind / crunch plain”).

Endless space plus 3 bikes:

The team from left to right: Lance’s parents, Ernie and Lynette, and me and Lance.

Lance went off-road to find some local landmarks, including this termite mound.

You had to be careful on these roads, due to booby-traps. Look carefully in the picture below. What you see is a perfect pavement-high step running diagonally across the road surface.

Hard-baked ruts (shown below) can do lots of damage if you hit them wrong. On a trip following this one, someone broke their lower leg badly after a wipe-out on ruts.

Lance found another booby-trap:

This was the worst fall of the trip. I was actually worried, as Lance remained down for a while – usually the ego would get you back on your pins pretty smartly. Lance said his knee was a bit sore.

He decided to do a (dramatized) re-enactment for the photographers:

Thanks to my trundling speed, Lance had plenty of time to explore dry river crossings for a more interesting photo angle…

…finding sheep…

…and frolicking in the flowers.

I think he was aiming for this photo before the phenomenon of side-stand incident struck.

Click here for a Google Maps approximation of the next section of our route. It consisted of a series of dead-ends, because the passes we would ride did not really “go anywhere.”

First up in the series of incredibly steep passes was Kobee Pass (alternative spellings include Koobee or Koebee, depending on the maps / road-signs).

You know you are in for a treat when the next pass starts at the top of the previous one (Die Hel, starting at the top of Swartberg Pass springs to mind). In the photo below, we reached the point where the Tierberg Pass splits from the top of the Kobee.

And we thought Kobee was steep! Tierberg Pass has the steepest average gradient of all the passes in South Africa (or at least all the known / recorded car-driveable passes?), at 1:6. The steepest section is a stiff 1:3.

Is this the top? Think again.

The steepest section was concreted.

Overhanging rock:

The road flattens out and meanders along the top of the plateau. It is, in essence, a farmer’s driveway; leading to a series of rooibos plantations. That is why you have to turn around at some point: the road goes no further than the plantations.

The landscape at the top is bleak and eerie.

We turned around at the first gate and headed back for what promised to be a spectacular view.

The only vehicle we saw on the entire Kobee / Tierberg route was a 4x4 on the self-same mission of “follow the road until it stops.”

The view did not disappoint.

Back at the place where Tierberg splits from Kobee, Ernie alerted me to the fact that my one fork seal was leaking. The road had been hard on my bike.

We decided to continue on Kobee to see where the road ends. Some bits were quite interesting…

…others just plain scenic.

We followed the road until the Kobee River. The road did continue on the other side of the river, but the depth presented a distinct possibility of bike drowning and the flow was actually quite strong. We decided to designate this as our turn-around and lunch stop.

Lance tried to wash off some mud from his earlier fall…

…and I had a chance to assess the health of my bike.

An unhappy fork seal:

The “oil”:

There was no substantial new leakage as of the previous day. Oh well. Let sleeping dogs lie…

Lunch / drinks at the river:

We back-tracked over Kobee Pass. Going down was trickier than up. The gradient meant that you built up speed easily.

Ernie and Lynette going for a bounce:

I noticed a small black snake in the left-hand track of the road and swerved wildly to the right to avoid it. I actually like snakes and did not want to squish it. I passed right in front of its nose, at which point it reared up, spread a mini-hood and struck at my boot. So much for gratitude!

It was probably a black spitting cobra, as I’ve had a run-in with a large one in the Clanwilliam area previously. In that case it reared half its body off the ground, but did not strike or spit, despite a ranger’s confirmation that it was a spitting cobra. This is why I prefer cobras to puff adders: as a rule, you have to really, really piss off a cobra before they strike. 

I’ve gone through the footage frame by frame, but the snake scarpered by the time Ernie went past. They move fast. The others probably think it’s all in my head.

“Did you see that?”

Kobee Pass descent:

Again, it was getting late and a small town requires a bit of forewarning if you want more than a basic supper. Ernie and Lynette headed to Nieuwoudtville to rustle up some grub, while Lance and I decided to back-track to a recently-missed turn-off (it’s hard to find) in order to ride one last pass for the day: Ou Dooppoort.

It may not be as steep as Tierberg, but at an average gradient of 1:9, it’s steep enough.

At the top we came across one gate, some goats and a whole armada of “miggies” (midges). Lance pleaded that we get through the gate a.s.a.p., because the bugs were bugging him.

Note the many black sky-dots, a.k.a miggies:

We had reached the top of the pass and, yet again, this road did not really go anywhere, but we still wanted to see how far it would go, given the hours of daylight left to us to explore.

Our first foray took us in the direction of what looked like an extreme 4x4 trail against the mountain (cannot be seen in the pictures below), but we ended at a gated yard. Obviously private.

We decided to explore down a different track…

…which ended unceremoniously at a stream. A crossing would have been possible, but we were running out of time and decided to head back.

Up until this point, I was the only one who had not been claimed by Mother Earth on this trip. A donga and a stall ensured that I joined the ranks of the Nieuwoudtville Initiated.

We took one last detour, until the road turned to lawn. At this point I realised that my one mirror had stayed behind at the place of my fall. Lance made the short trip to find my missing bike bit.

Lance on the lawn pointing to the crazy 4x4 track that we could not reach – see it against the mountain?

Ou Dooppoort was not the steepest pass we rode that day, but it made up for this by having the longest uninterrupted straight drags. You would pick up an unsettling amount of speed even in first gear. Any heavy-handedness on the back brakes and you’d feel the back start to swing out. I didn’t want to overheat my brakes, so I’d alternate relatively hard braking with first-gear-gradually-picking-up-speed runs.

Hitting the brakes:

The view was mind-boggling. We stopped to gawk, but Lance could not get off his bike to take the photos. Even in gear, the bike wanted to roll forward. You had to keep your foot on the brake.

The view farther along:

This time we made it back to Nieuwoudtville by dusk. What a wonderful day!

Day 03: A botanical bonanza

Trip Statistics
Distance: 189 km
Elapsed time: 07:44:33
Moving time: 05:24:34
Average speed: 24 km/h
Average moving speed: 35 km/h

An approximation of our route on Google Maps can be found here. The various flower excursions (Papkuilsfontein, Matjiesfontein and the dead-end road to the south in the above map) are either truncated or absent entirely.

It was technically the start of the flower season. Our trip had not really been planned around the flowers (on the contrary – we would have liked to avoid the resulting higher accommodation prices), but it would be a welcome bonus on this day’s run.

Our day started though, not with flowers, but with a waterfall at the aptly-named Nieuwoudtville Waterfall Reserve. The entry fee is minimal (R20 per person) and the “hike” is manageable in biker boots.

The owner of our accommodation is an avid photographer and there are plenty of framed photos of the surroundings peppered throughout the house. One picture shows the Nieuwoudtville Waterfall in full furious flow after particularly heavy rains in the 1990s.

Some non-botanical sightings of the day:

Our next stop was at the Gannabos kokerboom (quiver tree) “forest” for lack of a better word. Forest = lush and green to me. Perhaps someone can come up with a better name for a group of quiver trees? They were stunning; “forest” notwithstanding.

Note the bikes, crouching in the grass:

A hippie moment – me and the tree:

What a great-looking specimen. The tree’s not bad either.

We continued on some more gravel back-roads.

The sand was not nearly as bad as that found on day one of our trip.

Endless nothing. Food for the soul.

One farm road came with some booby traps. I was going at a relative clip when I saw a rise in the road. It took me a while to comprehend that I was looking at the mother of all speed bumps. I managed to tap off some speed, but I still went flying. Exhilarating! A sign warning of speed bumps was only found after the fact. Cheeky.

Interesting cattle grid:

The southward “tail” of our otherwise semi-circular route was as the result of a sign that said “blomme” (flowers). We decided to go check it out; finding some flowers…

…water crossings…

…and some sand for good measure.

Eventually we turned around, after some consultation with Garmin. 

Back over the water crossing:

We stopped for a lekker lunch at Papkuilsfontein. The original plan had been to camp there, but they had been fully booked.

They have an insane 4x4 trail, which we avoided, but their flower route was pretty interesting, i.e. pretty and interesting.

Lance finding the route less travelled:

The flowers would result in myopic concentration, leading to some sand squiggle dances on my part. Sand requires a far-horizon focus.

Our final flower foray was at Matjiesfontein (not the one of Karoo fame). The flowers here were truly spectacular.

It looks as if my bike’s sprouting some tree-lightning:

We returned to our accommodation via one of the roughest stretches of gravel highway I have yet to clap eyes on. I felt like my teeth were being rattled from my head.

My bike did not approve either. Its fork oil leak had evolved from light sprinkle to deluge.

Even my pants leg and boot on the right-hand-side were speckled. FYI: The smiley is from a previous trip.

We explored town before supper, finding an old horse cart in a new building on the church grounds…

…and a wall waiting for more people to die.

Day 04: Dongas and daisies

Trip Statistics
Distance: 425 km
Elapsed time: 10:01:59
Moving time: 07:39:21
Average speed: 42 km/h
Average moving speed: 56 km/h

Click here for a Google Maps link of our route.

Lance gave us two options for the initial leg of today’s route. Option 1: Botterkloof Pass. Option 2: Moedverloor Pad (Lose Hope Road). The Tracks4Africa map shows the Moedverloor Pad liberally annotated with warnings about sand, deep sand and more sand. Ernie and Lynette opted for Botterkloof. They had not seen this pass yet, but Lance and I had ridden it on a trip to Verneukpan, therefore we decided to go for the Moedverloor option. It sounded intriguing. It was.

Ernie and Lynette’s view of Botterkloof Pass and surrounds:

The Moedverloor Road:

They weren’t kidding about the sand, but it could not compete with the stuff we saw on day one. I suspect it will look much worse in mid-summer.

The sand still gave me a run for my money:

The road sensed that sand was not doing the trick. It tried rocks.

The going was very bouncy. Lance’s comment: “When Zanie stands, you know a road is interesting.” It was either stand or lose some molars.

We spotted a bakkie in the distance. Its headlights were on, making it and its manoeuvres more visible. The headlights appeared, disappeared and reappeared. What? The bakkie had executed an evasive action, making a wide run completely clear of the road. Not a good sign. Slow down. Unfortunately we did not capture footage of that particular obstacle, but here are some photos of the second-worst one of the day:

Perhaps if you are Jan Staal you could jump it. Mere mortals may simply charge into it and expire in spectacular fashion.

After the Moedverloor hammering, my poor bike was crying “snot en trane” over its front wheel.

We had arranged to meet up with Lance’s parents at the Doring River bridge on the R364. We waited only 10-15min before they arrived.

We had done what we came to do, but going straight home was not an option. The trip was lengthened by going home via the Biedouw Valley and the Wupperthal / Eselbank road.

Klipfonteinrand Pass:

Hoek se Berg Pass above the Biedouw Valley:

We explored some of the Biedouw Valley’s random dead-end roads…

…and found flowers in abundance.

Heading back towards mainstream gravel:

The infamous Wupperthal / Eselbank road presented a rather domestic scene. Domestic animals that is.

These were the most chilled cattle I have ever seen:

Not so chilled asses. The ones with the four legs. Nothing to do with sitting in the saddle on a hot day.

This road never disappoints.

Eselbank Pass:

The usual sandy stretch was not as sandy as usual. All managed to remain upright. No farms were bought.

Two months later, when Lance tackled this road again as part of a trip across the Old Postal Route, plots were bought left, right and centre. It shows you how a road can change.

Miniature human (me) at the Eselbank Waterfall gorge:

Some more rock formations:

We spotted a couple riding two-up on a Dakar (the guy is Growweblaar on the Wild Dog Forum).

Growweblaar plus brave pillion:

We met up with them when we all stopped at Cederberg Oasis for a lunchtime toastie.

Cederberg Oasis:

We were floored when Growweblaar asked us: “Did you see the leopard prints?” He took some really nice pics of them, which can be found in his ride report. Growweblaar had been behind us by a couple of minutes at the time of riding the leopard-autographed road. He mentioned a bakkie had passed by very recently and the spoor was above the bakkie tracks. Wait a second. We had caught that bakkie on the GoPro…

…and, as it turns out, the leopard tracks (unnoticed at the time).

The time between passing the bakkie and reaching the prints? Less than 30 seconds. I went through the video second by second, hoping to spot some spots, but we had missed that sighting by what feels like a millisecond.

Lance playing around on the absolute last stretch of gravel for the day, just before Ceres:

In keeping with the general trend of the past few days, we arrived home at dusk.

The diagnosis

My bike had performed admirably for an old timer (it’s 15 years old), but it still required some TLC. It had taken a hammering; the extent of which was to be revealed in full glory upon return.

First stop: Superfoxi a.k.a. Mike Fuchs (a suspension guru on Wild Dog Forum). I decided to use the leaking fork seal as an opportunity to install different springs. My dislike of corrugations (and most anything that resembled such) was reaching pathological proportions.

Remember the leaking black stuff? Mike gave it a quick look. That’s not oil, he said. It’s acid. ACID!! Let that sink in… Unfortunately it did. Battery acid is not black…but whatever it ate under all those failings sure was. Never mind under the fairings. Mike pointed out my two coolant hoses. They were chowed, but had managed to hold throughout the trip.

Second stop: my usual long-suffering mechanic, Andrew from Kingtek. I’m apparently the customer they see the most due to a combination of the amount of kilometres I rack up and the type of terrain my bike has to manage. The first question he asked when informed of the acid was whether the bike was still riding fine. Yes. No new sounds / symptoms there. I had ridden the bike to him. I left my bike at bike hospital and awaited feedback with trepidation.

Now imagine what my stomach did when I received an email headed “Acid Damage” from Andrew, with these attached:

He phoned within 5 minutes, by which time I had convinced myself that he would advise that I euthanise my bike. Imagine by heartfelt relief when I was told that my bike would live. The acid had chewed through the outer casing of some electrical wires, but had yet to munch through the important colourful bits. My bike’s nervous system was intact. The coolant hoses would need replacing and there would be lots of patching / MacGyver work, but I’d be able to ride again. I’m long past the point of “trying to keep the resale value.” I just need “ride value.”

My battery was replaced by a Motobatt no-maintenance battery, which will never leak acid. Let’s hope it lasts longer than my last Motobatt (7 months!), but I vow now never to use a stock-standard maintenance battery again (I’d used them again due to the previous dismal performance of my first Motobatt). I seem to be cursed when it comes to batteries. I have replaced batteries 4 times in just over 3 years, despite using my bike as a daily commuter and for numerous trips.

P.S: My new springs have turned my bike into a different creature. Why did I wait so long to do this mod?

Froggy's picture
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Joined: 2014/01/15

Well done Zanie, yet another good read.

I must have taken you ages to put this together.

You are certainly becoming the Sand Queen!

Andy.

 

Charles Oertel's picture
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Joined: 2007/04/14

Nice report Zanie.  I want to ride with you guys!  Looks like fun.

Committee: Webmaster / Ride Captain

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Joined: 2015/01/06

Nice one Zanie - enjoy your reports and the humor !!!! smiley

Geoff Russell's picture
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Joined: 2007/09/25

Well done, great report.

Committee: Ride Captain

Trevor Rennison's picture
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Joined: 2013/08/26

Zanie, I really enjoy reading your reports. Love your writing style, interesting and a very entertaining read. As for sand and rocks, I'll tackle them on foot with my hiking boots on, and keep my bike mostly on tar and good gravel roads.

As for black spitting cobras: I showered with one in Namibia! It entered through the fanlight window that I opened to release the steam. It's a long story that I'll tell you one day over a beer at one of the meetings.

Ride safe!

So many mountains, so little time.

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