River valley offers a perfect place for civilised cycling
Cycling from Worcester to Robertson over three days is a good beginners’ deviation tour because it is primarily on relatively quiet tar roads and it has relatively gentle slopes as it follows the broad Breede River valley down towards the sea.
The gradient is seldom enough to freewheel. Nonetheless, if the wind is in your favour, you will spin along. This means the missus or other less athletic types can be persuaded to accompany you.
In this valley there is a huge number of wine, olive and other estates that welcome visitors, and the less athletic can park off at an establishment.
Plan your timing and route carefully to coincide with opening hours on the estates. This information can be found at Robertson Wine Valley, scroll down and click on "download valley map". Then print out the PDF. The first page is a map of most of the valley; the second is a table of all the estates on the map, what they offer and their trading hours.
As with everything in life, this route’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness — it is well developed with agriculture. The general rule for deviation tours is: the further away from development, the better.
I follow my nose out of Worcester past graveyards and an area where the municipality has drained a swamp. Quickly, I reach the Worcester-Villiersdorp Road; I travel along this for a short way then take the tar road off to the left (to Eilandia and Scherpenheuwel).
This takes me up a longish pass past the Klipkrans Nature Reserve (which has excellent accommodation on the river) and then down into the Breede River valley.
Shortly after crossing the river there is a T-junction. A short way to the right (not in the direction you are going, which is down the valley) is a wine estate, Alvi’s Drift Winery. I am drawn towards it, as if by a magnet. There are few other wineries on this route before you get to Robertson, 45km away, so if you don’t stop here, you may end up very thirsty and deprived!
I’m not going to describe every wine estate in the valley because that would take up too much space.
Emerging from Alvi’s, I point my bike downward and pedal. Shortly I arrive at a right turn in the road, which takes me away from the river into the adjacent mountains. This turn is at the farm Kniediep. The name may refer to how far the first farmer waded into the river or it may refer to his financial situation. It ties in with other farm names like Lankverwacht and Houmoed, names that confirm that farming is not for sissies.
There is heaps of good accommodation in Robertson and if you are riding outside of peak season, you don’t have to book ahead
Immediately after the right turn, the road becomes gravel and within half a kilometre the landscape is magically transformed from orderly vineyards bordered with bougainvilleas into dry Karoo thornveld. The long slog uphill is mostly bordered by the Amathunzi Private Nature Reserve. The gate to the nature reserve is near the top of the pass. There a sign says that the park is "Leo-friendly". Generally mountain bikers are not keen on cycling where there are lions, but I later find out that this term means that it is leopard friendly and plenty of mountain bikers visit this reserve because it has lots of single track.
There is a longish descent to the valley of the Bushman’s River, a tributary of the Breede.
At this point you have an option to take a shortcut on a track over the mountains to the elfin town of McGregor, particularly known for its annual poetry festival normally held in August.
I decide to turn left at the T-junction to Robertson. Before Robertson there are some very picturesque horse farms.
There is heaps of good accommodation in Robertson and if you are riding outside of peak season, you don’t have to book ahead.
Just consult booking.com when you get there.
Next morning, take the R317 out of Robertson towards Bonnievale. This road has a nice yellow-line verge. This is elephant country for wine estates, and more horse farms.
One big wine estate not to miss is Viljoensdrift because it has great food (olives, cheese and, you guessed it, wine), but especially for its barge trips on the Breede River. It is a beautiful river, with fish eagles and lots of big trees.
I cycle on, taking the quieter tar road south of the Breede River to Bonnievale (R317).
The beautiful valley continues unfolding.
I arrive at Bonnievale on a Sunday afternoon. There is no restaurant open so I repair to the Multisave for sustenance. I am prevented from buying hake from the takeaway counter because, the manager informs me, on a Sunday they clean out the oil pans (by which time the oil has probably become varnish). So I buy an ageing thigh of chicken.
Everywhere you go in this valley you see the difference between the wealthy (as represented by estate owners, almost all white) and the workers, almost universally coloured. We certainly all, including our current rulers, have a lot to be ashamed of in the country.
One of the worst things that we whities introduced was the dop system. Every day, wine estate workers were given a cup of wine. If we are to believe Andre Brink’s book, Praying Mantis, the Khoi people were already very susceptible to liquor and we purposefully made them enslaved to it.
The dop system has been abolished but has been replaced by peddlers of cheap wine to workers on the estates. The effects of the system can still be seen everywhere.
We whities have not yet found a way to apologise for our past atrocities. So when paying for my thigh of chicken, I gingerly ask the cashier, "How can I estimate the extent of my indebtedness to you?" Her short reply is "vyftien rand sestig".
I repair to my excellent lodgings to eat the thigh.
There’s a good selection of accommodation in Bonnievale, mostly on the river.
The next day, the tar road follows the river for some way, then starts moving away from it. The countryside becomes slightly more hilly, though (as the song goes) "Not so much that you should know dear". Eventually, the road starts to move out of the incredibly productive valley (wine, dairy, berries and fruit of many types), into yellow wheat lands.
Eventually, about 25km from Swellendam, the R60 takes a sharp left towards the Langeberg Mountains, which loom over the countryside.
Straight on, the road is marked Bruintjiesrivier, and locals tell me that this road also goes to Swellendam. Nobody travelling in a city car would consider driving this road because it’s gravel, but that’s exactly why I take it.
Swellendam has an array of tempting guesthouses. But first I need to quench my thirst. I slope into a bar. A sign says, "If you are drinking to forget, please pay in advance."
I realise I’m back to hard reality, no more of the soft sell that I had been enjoying at the wine estates.
• Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours, which does slackpacking and cycle tours to various parts of SA.