Prince Albert and the passes 18th– 22nd March 2021 by Simon Groves
My wife mentioned to me back in January that she would like a trip to Prince Albert. Erica is an accomplished artist and had read that this small town in the Karoo is home to some great artists with some lovely galleries and exhibitions. Well, that got me thinking that perhaps we could make this trip to nourish her artistic soul along with my desire to clock up some kilometers on the bike and gain more valuable off-road experience. Decision made we booked an Airbnb house for the long weekend.
As a bit of background, I am relatively new to off-road riding having completed the BMW Level 1 training in October 2020 and more recently the Level 2 training on 7th March 2021. In between the training I have probably clocked up about 1000kms on off road club rides with Arno Rossouw, Geoff Russell and Steve T Jones. Most of these, but not all, were easy beginners rides on well used gravel roads. Anyway, this training and experience instilled a confidence in me to now take on some more challenging rides. I love watching the YouTube channels, “Itchy Boots and “On Her Bike” and if you’re familiar with these ladies, Noraly and Kinga inspire me to take on more challenges and get to see some wonderful sights that can only be found by heading off the beaten path.
In preparation for the trip, I had a new set of Dunlop Missions fitted to my GS 1200 Adventure and had the guys at Flying Brick kit me out with a compressor and puncture repair kit. My previous road tyres were pretty much finished, so it was time for new shoes in any event.
Thursday arrived and ready for the off. I pack my bags and load these into the support vehicle. LOL! Did I forget to mention Erica does not ride pillion and would be driving by car along with our 85 year Uncle. Handy that I only need a few basics in the Top Box for when I arrive a few hours before them.
I set off at 8:30am. The weather is cool and overcast so as I close in on Du Toitskloof I opt for the tunnel route. Six weeks earlier I had been caught out riding the pass in low cloud and pouring rain with virtually zero visibility due to my specs constantly fogging up! Not the start I wanted to this journey.
With just the one roadside stop for quick drink and a leak I push straight on through on the N1 to Matjiesfontein. As I approach the turn, I see the traffic stopped and police lights in the distance. Riding on to the front of the traffic the reason becomes apparent. A convoy of three big trucks and trailers are using the whole road to turn onto the R354 each loaded with a massive wind turbine blade. After a few minutes we are waved through and I get into Matjiesfontein. A quick look around and spot of lunch in the coffee shop I exchange pleasantries with a couple on their GS1200 heading to Cape Town.
From Matjiesfontein I continue on the N1 to the Prince Albert road turn where I stop again for a quick stretch and some fluids before completing the last 40kms towards Prince Albert. The view of the Swartberg mountains ahead of me fills me with excitement. I locate the house which is a stunning two-bedroom Karoo cottage just off the main road and surrounded with Olive trees. The host had provided me with self-check-in instructions, so I open up and settle in soon to be followed by the family.
Friday, we awake and agree to spend the day exploring the town on foot. In the afternoon I take them in the car for a quick run up to the top of the Swartberg Pass to take in the views. The skies are clear, and it all looks majestic. We meet a nice guy from Pretoria on his mountain bike. He has cycled all the way from George and is heading up the Swartberg Pass to then cycle down Die Hel and camp for the night at the bottom. After a chat we wished him well and went out separate ways.
Saturday is my day on the bike and after a light breakfast I head off the short 10kms to the start of the Swartberg Pass. I stop at the bottom to let some air out of the tyres and flip the brake pedal heightener down.
The weather is overcast and as I start the ascent, I head into some early morning cloud and light mist. The temperature is a cool 16c and I make my way steadily to the top and continue to the Gamkaskloof “Die Hel” turn. Prior to my trip I had been warned that perhaps it would not be wise to do this pass on my own. I was told the pass can be tricky and there is no cell phone reception should one get into trouble. As it turned out the pass had also been closed for three days due to repairs at the 29km mark. As luck would have it the repairs were completed just the day before, on Friday, so I decided, as is usually my way, not to be swayed and stick to my guns and go for it!
As I turned to start the decent into Hel I soon realised this would not be the easy ride I had enjoyed on the Swartberg Pass. The path was narrow, and the combination of hard sand and small stones made for a solid but bumpy base to ride along. There were also plenty of larger rocks on the path, so I needed to look far ahead to avoid any hard knocks on the rims. As I started to enjoy the ride and feel my confidence increasing by the minute, I was able to start to take in more of the breathtaking scenery that was unfolding in front of me. The weather was now clearing as I was dropping down into the valley and the temperature was steadily rising. I could now see the magnificent valley and the mountain ranges stretched out before me. On the side of the range that I was following the pass along, I would catch glimpses ahead where I would see the pass ahead cut its path far away into the distance. I felt slightly nervous but more excited as I made my way along the pass. I was lucky to see three klipspringers stand in front of my on the path for a few brief seconds before leaping away.
Low and behold who should I bump into along the way but my old friend from Pretoria on his mountain bike now making his way back up Die Hel. I stopped and killed the engine and we chatted a while. He told me he had run out of light yesterday before reaching the bottom and had to pitch his tent in the wild and huddle in for the night. Fortunately, the night had not been too cold. In the morning he abandoned going further and decided to rather get back up to the Swartberg Pass and head down and onto Oudtshoorn. We wished each other well and went our separate ways again.
Next up for me were a couple of shallow water crossings which I was relieved were shallow given this was my first experience crossing any water. I did not stop at either, rather just opting for the charge straight on through approach which proved to work well enough and buoyed with my success onwards I continued.
The pass now started to narrow much more, and the turns started to become tighter and steeper. Many sections becoming a series of tight U-turns and short straights as the decent to the bottom had now started. This is where the training now started to pay dividends as I recalled how to lean my weight over against the tight turns and control the speed with the clutch and brakes. Steadily I made my way down without any scares and felt such a sense of achievement having made the ride without any moments of concern or doubt.
Now at the bottom I relaxed with a cool drink and afforded myself the luxury of a little dance upon my bike for the benefit of my video. Feel free to check out my channel on Youtube for this. “Simon Groves”
Next up came my less successful moments as I decided to continue to the camp site along the valley floor on what was a very sandy road. After about two or three kilometers I came unstuck in some deep sand. Whilst trying to keep up some speed and stand and lean back on the bike I just could not make it go in the direction I wanted and soon the front wheel made straight for a thorn bush at which point I rolled off the throttle and stopped. So, there I am sitting with my back tyre out of sight beneath the sand. “Don’t panic” I remember saying to myself as I dismounted and took off my helmet and jacket too cool off and access my predicament. Well, the Gods were looking after me this day because before I could devise my recovery strategy along came a couple from the camp site on a big KTM. Lucky indeed as I had only passed two 4x4s in the hour and a half coming down. They stopped and the guy kindly helped lift and push me over to some more solid ground whilst I steered and powered the bike out. I also took the opportunity to turn the bike around at this point deciding not to push my luck and leave the sand riding for another day when I have had some training and experience on how to manage the sand! I thanked them and off they went as I put back on my gear and set about the return to the top. One more wobble and off in the sand was to befall me, but undeterred I quickly lifted the bike back up as per the training procedure. Straight back and bend the knees and away we go again. I did not hang about as the Baboons gathering close by were slightly unnerving me, truth be told.
The ride back up the pass was just as rewarding as the decent as I now see everything the other way around. Stunning scenery that no photos can ever really capture or do justice too. You just must see it yourself. It makes you feel such a tiny little spec off insignificance against the massive backdrop of the mountains and landscape. Quite overwhelming.
A few more Klipspringer dart across the pass in front of me and I arrive at a water crossing the same time as a chap coming the opposite way in his Hilux. I wait for him to cross and then cross and continue. Some more stops for photos and to take everything in and then back up to the Swartberg Pass to carry on down towards Oudtshoorn.
Probably because it is a Saturday the pass is busy with lots of mountain bikers and quite a few more cars than the Friday when I came up with the family. I enjoy the ride down and gravel turns to tar as I make my way towards Oudtshoorn. The scenery everywhere is just so beautiful that I ride a leisurely pace and soak it all in. I stop for a late lunch at the water slide park and enjoy a burger and a Windhoek draught before heading back over the Swartberg Pass and back to Prince Albert.
The day had encompassed about 200kms of which I think around 150km were on the passes and in the valley. A truly remarkable experience that will be engraved in my memory for ever.
That evening we went out to supper to the Rude Chef and I was very aware how pumped up I was still on adrenalin.
Sunday, I washed the dust from the bike and chilled at the house. A day to relax in the Karoo and drink a few more Windhoek lagers! Just what the doctor ordered.
Monday, was packing up day and we left Prince Albert just before 10am. I rode back to Laingsburg probably a little quicker than I should have, as I arrived with my fuel range predicting just 25kms until empty. The Engen garage attendant pumped in R400 of fuel and commented it was the most he had ever managed for a motorbike.
Next stop the halfway point home at Kroonplaas Padstal, Touws River. Egg and Bacon roosterkoek and then home. This time the weather was awesome, and I took the Du Toitskloof pass which was lovely and clear. Arrived back home mid-afternoon after a great break.
Total distance 980kms.