Sutherland experience(d)…and life in the back-up vehicle

Zanie's picture

Points: 8

First: an apology
This report won’t have too many photos. My usual videographer did this to himself:



Lance’s initial plan had been to give the Sutherland ride a miss due to his injury, but he started getting cabin fever. In the end, he lifted with Lisa in her Jimny; following one of the intermediate groups. I joined Geoff in the experienced group. This is another reason for minimal photos: we had a lot of ground to cover and stops were kept short and sweet.

I’ve been on two previous Sutherland trips. My first, in 2014, was meant to be with the beginners’ group, but I ended up catching a lift in a car thanks to being on crutches. Lance and I appear to be accident prone. My second was with Neels in the intermediate group in 2015 (ride report here). We skipped 2016 due to a self-organised ride to Nieuwoudtville area.

Food and fuel

We departed from the Winelands Engen at 7am. Breakfast was at Cumberland Hotel in Worcester. As Geoff quipped, perhaps the hotel staff did not want us rough and tough bikers to mix with the upper crust, as we were placed in an inside room. The food made up for the lack of view. The big breakfast lasted me all the way into the evening, as I did not have the time or the inclination to snack during the day.

At this point one of the riders, Chris – our only KTM rider (you can imagine the ribbing he got), realised he’d left his wallet at the Engen. Luckily for him, one of the other groups had picked it up. Unlucky for him, a car had driven over it. Lucky for him (again) that the only cards that got pulverised were the expired ones – the others were still ok!

Meanwhile, Lance was having breakfast at Die Tolhuis.


All the small bikes refuelled again at Robertson. We finally hit dirt just after Montagu. This stop was slightly longer than the usual, because people were letting down tyres. I am happy at 2 bar, so I had a bit more time to take snaps. Herewith are the only representations of my photographic endeavours for the day:

Our route took us over the first Ouberg Pass of the day and spat us out at Touws River, where we met up briefly with one of the intermediate groups (including Lance). I fuelled up again and had a quick chat with Lance. Someone in his group had already had an oopsie on some marbles, but it was one of those “ego is more hurt than bike” falls, which are the best type of falls to have in the bigger scheme of things.

An ode to dust…

Shortly after Touws River, we landed up on a very nice stretch of road: a bit rougher than typical highway gravel, with stunning views in a valley. This was followed by some open drags. And Dust. Lots and lots of dust. On a previous ride with Geoff (Swartland), the group had left long dust-free gaps between riders. Unfortunately not so this time.

Most riders appeared to be speed-bunnies, automatically assuming that if you were slacking off, it was because you were slow, not because you were trying to get out of the person’s dust in front of you. They’d pass you and you’d have to slack off some more due to their dust cloud. The person behind you would then also assume you’re slow and the vicious cycle would continue until you were right at the back with the other chilled people who could not be bothered trying to fight for a space in the dust.

I am most certainly not the fastest person in the group. If there’s a big dust-free space ahead of me and I’m going slower than you, by all means overtake. Otherwise please be considerate. I’m not the only one that was a bit miffed by this behaviour.

Only once did I decide to follow the Joneses; overtaking a series of people to see what all the fuss was about. Nope. No dust-free space here either. I dropped back again, met by my chilled back-brethren with a “did you enjoy the dust?” quip.


There was an awesome technical stretch at some point before the second Ouberg Pass. It came with sand, slate, rocks, you name it. I have not been on this stretch of road before (I cross-checked with my Garmin tracks) and I’m sure Lance will enjoy it too once he’s all fixed up. Make mental note: come back here.

The anti-dust crew and I took it really easy. We would stop every now and then, allowing for a gap to open up in front of us. I’d use the opportunity to de-dust my visor. Then we’d ride until we caught up with the rest. Rinse. Repeat.

It gave me some time to reflect on how far I had come; happy with the knowledge that, in particular on the more technical stretches, I was more comfortable than some. It was an odd feeling wrapping my head around that thought. May I never forget how it felt to tackle my first marbles and sand, and the days when 40km/h on good gravel was my limit. Four years and 60,000km later I’m definitely no Geoff or Kellan (a skilled / mad father-son team), but I’m no longer a newbie.

To off-set my lack of photos for the day’s tour, here are some stunning pics taken by Lance of the intermediate group:

And then the curse hits…

I’m trying to think of a ride where things have not gone wrong with my bike. There are some. I think. The earlier rides. My latest Namibia ride. The most popular form of revolt is a flat tyre. I’ve had about 9 or 10 in the space of 2 years – I really am starting to lose count. I’ve had a battery die and another boil. Fork seals love going, especially if the rides are rougher. I’ve snapped a clutch lever and smashed quite a few mirrors – about 5. Today my bike would take it to a whole new level.

At the top of the Sutherland Ouberg Pass, Kellen pointed out that my bike was leaking coolant. A lot. I looked down at my boots - my right one was covered. Everyone was stopped for a mini-break at the top of the pass. Geoff advised I go ahead and wait for them at the next T-junction. By then I would know whether the problem was terminal. I strongly suspected it was. My bike had never overheated, even during a 7km sand-paddling session at Jurg se Kaya. I figured a stone had hit or rattled a hole in my radiator. 

The great trek

I think I managed another 2 or 3 km before the overheating light came on. I stopped immediately and switched off the bike. While I waited for the rest, I rummaged in my bag. I was carrying all the usual tools and tubes for punctures, but I had also packed a tow-strap. A big shout-out and thanks to JP Hamman, who gifted it to me a year or so back. Other riders also had tow-straps, but mine was the perfect length – no need to daisy-chain two straps.

Geoff asked me whether I’ve been towed before. I said no, but I knew that the better rider had to be the one in front. A year ago, towing would not have been an option for me. I would have asked someone else to do it, or waited for the back-up vehicle. As it was, time was running out to get to Sutherland before the petrol station closed and the sun set. I was willing to give it a bash.

Geoff sent the rest of the group on their way, with Kellan as their new ride-leader. One biker (name?) stayed behind with Geoff and me. Geoff hooked up our bikes. Thanks to the BMW winter self-rescue training for the tips on where to attach the tow-strap! We had it around my right-hand-side foot-peg (no chance of hitting the bike into gear) and Geoff’s left-hand-side foot-peg.

This is where I’m going to ruin Geoff’s crazy-biker reputation, because he set off very gently and carefully, kept the speed to roughly 50km/h (on the flat straights – slower on the hills / corners) and his gear-changes were smooth. Helpful Biker stayed behind us, with his hazards on.

The only close call was due to my lack of towing skills. On the first downhill, I allowed the rope to get too slack. I was trying to moderate my speed with the back brake, but it wasn’t working out for me. When the rope eventually snapped tight on the next slight rise, my bike was jerked wildly from side to side. I’m sure back at Geoff’s end it wasn’t pleasant either. I can see why it’s so dangerous: if one bike goes down, the other goes down too.

Geoff stopped before the next downhill to impart some towing wisdom: feather the front brake to keep the strap taught. Using the front brake on gravel, especially on corners, went against the grain, but it worked like a charm. 

It felt completely odd, sitting as a passenger on your own dead-quiet bike. Geoff’s bike made enough noise for both of ours – you could hear the engine complain on the up-hills. Geoff would give me a thumbs-up every now and then to check whether I was still ok. I’d manage a nod back. Every now and then I would also have time to scan the scenery, but meanwhile my entire back was tense as all hell.

40 km later, we were finally in Sutherland. What a ride! When I climbed off my bike, I had a funny pins-and-needles feeling running up and down my legs. Like head-rush, just leg-rush. It took a while for my adrenaline levels to equalise.

I survived!

Total distance for the day, as measured from Worcester: 440km (note the nice and chilly average temperature).

Thank you all for the cash you paid into the Sutherland trip’s cost. A portion of it helped to get me home.

Lance and I were lucky in that we had secured a spot at a guest house (The Velvet Olive) right next door to the main festivities at Jupiter Guest House. We bumped into Jean and Kate. Jean had joined us on my second-ever multi-day gravel ride on my own bike, 2 years ago. That trip was the one that “reset” my relationship with my bike after my broken foot episode. I have not looked back since. I’ll ignore the fact that Jean told me that the only thing I could now do with my bike is burn it!

Life in the back-up vehicle

A new day dawned at a freezing -7°C. My bike had gained a friend even before we set off.

His problem was also trip-terminal:

The Dakar was Rob’s bike. Or, at least, it was loaned to him while his bike gets repaired after an accident. The bike obviously didn’t take too kindly to its new rider.

Jacqueline had (extraordinarily) offered me her bike for the return leg, but I ended up in the back-up vehicle today, along with Craig (driver), Marie (just along for the ride) and Rob (he of the bust Dakar). Lisa’s Jimny did not have space for another person and Lance was heading to Blouberg. Craig kindly offered to drop me and my bike off at home – all the way in the sticks at Noordhoek.

The intermediate group Lance and Lisa were following was the first to leave in the morning; setting off at 8:30am. They reached Ouberg Pass before we even left. Apparently it took them over an hour to get from the top to the bottom of the pass.

If you are new to gravel riding, this pass is frightening to do downhill. The first time I rode it, I was very new to biking, but Lance took us up the pass. I had managed easily at a snail’s pace.  Earlier this year, I rode it a second time – this time going down. I kept thinking “I’m glad Lance didn’t take me down here back then!” Your bike can pick up a disconcerting amount of speed, even when running against engine compression in first gear.

I’m getting tyred of this!

The back-up brigade eventually set off some time after 10am. We spotted some bikers next to the road shortly after Touws River. It was Heino and Ilona, along with Heino’s Brother-in-law. They were in the beginners gravel group yesterday, but after fixing a puncture, had decided to return straight home today. The tyre had gone flat again. Craig put in a snotty and they were on their way again. We would be behind them in case they needed help.

It turns out they did need help again. The snotty dislodged; giving both Heino and Ilona a wild ride when the tyre deflated catastrophically. This time they were stranded right next to De Doorns. A cop-car stopped next to them and kept an eye on them until we arrived – apparently this is not a place where you want to be stuck.

Another snotty was not going to work. The tyre needed a mushroom plug, but there were none at hand. A tube would apparently not work either, due to the valve hole being off-centre: it will cause the tube valve to tear. The tyre would have to be replaced.

The wheel was removed – a much easier process than with a chain-driven bike.

The back-up vehicle was carrying some spare tyres.

Three’s a crowd

Unfortunately, despite the variety of tyres, there were none that were exactly the right width. The tyre would not seat onto the bead. Perhaps it would have been possible with a stronger compressor, but the new tyre option was now a no-go.

The only other option: load the 1200 onto the trailer. At this point, one of the other groups of bikers came past. Carel stopped and surveyed our predicament. We were told that three bikes would not fit onto the trailer. Perfectly true, but here’s the fine print: they will fit if, and only if:

  • Two of the bikes are 650s.
  • The bike-owners are not too bothered with the idea of (more) scratches, i.e. they are pretty desperate to just get home.
  • There are enough strong dudes around to manhandle (or is it dudehandle?) the bikes.

It took some blood, sweat and tears, but eventually the impossible became the possible.

Mission accomplished!

We can squish people too!

The rest of the afternoon was spent playing musical bikes. We off-loaded Marie, Heino and Ilona at Marie’s shop (Just Bike Tyre) in Brackenfell, where Marie would sort them out with a new tyre. We had to remove one of the 650s before removing the 1200.

The next check-point was Rondebosch, where we dropped off Rob. The final one was my home in Noordhoek. By that time it was 7:30pm. A bright moon helped shed some light on the bike off-loading process. Poor Craig still had to head out all the way to Stellenbosch to drop off the vehicle. It had been a marathon day for him. He made a super back-up. I wonder how easily he will volunteer in future! 

A final, happy note: as far as I understand, there were no serious human-damaging incidents on the trip. I figure we would know, considering we were in the back-up vehicle!

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

Thanks Zanie, nice read about a nice weekend.



Committee: Ride Captain

Craig Cauvin's picture
Joined: 2012/01/11

As always, wonderfully entertaining Zanie!

smiley smiley smiley

Craig C

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