Finding an invigorating life cycle in the hushed expanse of the Karoo
The wilderness and Karoo residents’ hospitality engulf an unsuspecting traveller, writes Teigue Payne
I had won first prize: one night in Noupoort, Northern Cape (second prize: two nights). So I board the Greyhound bus that leaves daily at 3.30pm from Johannesburg for Cape Town.
We arrive at Noupoort in the early hours. I offload my bike in the dark as the nonplussed Greyhound stewardess mouths a relieved goodbye.
Luckily Noupoort’s geography is not hard to fathom, even in the darkness, and I reach my lodging quickly. The town is not a barrel of fun at 2am (or at any time), but then neither am I.
There are several guest-houses in the town that will accept late arrivals. Find them on booking.com.
I wake to a bright Karoo morning and a huge breakfast. I opt to pack the Vienna sausages and a cheese sandwich into my panniers for lunch.
Noupoort, a decrepit railway centre, must be one of the poorest towns in SA.
Every second youth seems to be begging. But the town is known for its Christian Care Centre for drug rehabilitation. In the past, tough love (hard labour) was used to chase out drug demons, reportedly with great success, but the methods have apparently been relaxed since.
I drop in on the old Railway Institute, converted to a restaurant and run by rehabilitated drug addicts. Many appear to be young English-speaking whities and their almost-ponytail accents are a stark contrast to the overall manner of speaking in the town.
But I have my own rehabilitation programme, so I set out on the gravel road, first towards Hanover, then turning south towards my next night stop at the Lormar Endurance horse stud and guest farm.
The farm holds the six annual Lormar Endurance events — two mountain bike, two horse, one trail run and one adventure motorbike race.
The first mountain bike race attracted 90 participants and the second 244. The mountain bike events are held in October.
The farm owner, Piet van der Merwe, and his family are icons of Karoo hospitality.
The gravel road surface is excellent for most of the 80km I ride that day; tar could hardly be better. It is hard and smooth and only occasionally corrugated or sandy. These roads have been around for many decades and are well made.
Spinning along them is even better if the wind is with you. Like a dhow, a bicycle sails best with the wind behind it. Of course, it’s hard if the wind is against you. In fact, you might even schedule your trip according to the prevailing winds.
Along the way, in almost every vista, I see springbok. Sometimes only a few; sometimes small herds. And there are different types of springbok — black, copper and white bushy-tailed young ones.
There are also sheep. Their tawniness is beautiful against the yellow grass of the Karoo that disguises them so well. The sheep spend most of their time with springbok and imagine them trying to keep up with their speedy friends.
This is great exercise and it’s less boring than yoga. It is a chance to be alone with a lot of sheep and springbok — and some meerkat, a few grey herons and occasionally a tortoise. Meerkats have become a darling of management writers, who say they shouldn’t be able to survive in the Kalahari desert. They’re tiny, live in a scorching environment, and for all practical purposes are defenceless and surrounded by predators — similar to good old capitalism.
I spot a few tortoises on the move. Later I am told by a farmer that they are walking to higher ground, which is an indication that rain is coming. They stop on the lower slopes of hills and apparently observe the flood. When I ask whether she is expecting rain, she says, "We are praying for it."
The gradients are slight and the road runs through plains and dales. The big hills and mountains are always in the blue distance. There is no water in any of the streams, but many of the farms’ windmills are located comfortingly near the road and you can tap off a little water.
Most of the farm names in the area are related to springs: Brakfontein, Droëfontein, Swakfontein, Groenfontein.
I arrive at Lormar Endurance farm at 2.30pm. During the day’s riding, not a single vehicle has passed me in my direction and only four vehicles passed in the opposite direction.
I am immediately offered boeretroos (coffee) but I rudely refuse this because I am looking for cooler stuff and a swim, which I get in the farm’s crystal-clear reservoir.
Lormar Endurance farm has great accommodation and a wonderful atmosphere. It is an obligatory stop.
There are a number of options from there and much depends on where you are going to go after you have finished your deviation. If you don’t know where you’re going, any destination will do.
You could ride the road from the farm to Middelburg (40km) or Richmond (70km).
The roads to the towns are similar to the smooth gravel between Noupoort and Lormar Endurance farm. You could also cycle to Graaff-Reinet. I chose Richmond because I wanted to attend the best book festival in SA, Boekbedonnerd.
The ride from the farm to Nieu-Bethesda (70km) is along a very picturesque road with varying landscapes (flat, mountainous, wet and dry) and dramatic rock formations.
Nieu-Bethesda is a great little settlement that presumably needs no introduction.
From Nieu-Bethesda you have two choices.
You could ride to Middelburg (80km) on another exceptional but mountainous road, especially through the Bergplaas Nature Reserve via the Sneeuberg range. It’s a public road so no permission is required.
Or you could ride to Graaff-Reinet (50km) along a standard Karoo road, which means it’s very beautiful.
Again, Graaff-Reinet needs no introduction or advertising. Suffice it to say that you could spend two days, a week or the rest of your life in the area.
• Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours, which does slackpacking and cycle tours to various parts of SA.