Cycling on the road Adam Kok took for his people’s great trek
Dry, dusty, rough roads lead to adventure, relief and gratitude
After a fortuitous conversation with a passing farmer outside Ugie, Eastern Cape, we backtrack and find the road which Adam Kok III used to bring his people from Philippolis in the Free State to East Griqualand and the town which was eventually named after him, Kokstad. A faded board next to the road announcing “Bastervoetpad” tells us we are finally on the right track.
We lift up our eyes unto the hills and see evidence that the track goes in the direction that Kok traversed, rising 830m over 20km into the Eastern Cape Drakensberg.
In 1861, Kok III accepted a British offer to settle his people, a faction of the Griqua , in the eastern section of the Cape Colony. He then led his people on a two-year trek across SA to their new home.
A new home was not what we were aiming for— only a sure roof over our heads for that night. But to reach it, we not only had to ascend the 830m, but also descend on the other side and northwards traverse a long stretch towards the unassuming capital of this almost forgotten area with the big name of Rhodes.
But first the ascent. It’s a 4x4 route which presumably means it’s eminently doable by mountain bike. Provided, that is, that the mountain bike’s engine (“dis nou ek,” as that bipartisan hero, Haas Das, had it) is okay.
Suffice it to say that the engine sweats and groans, stutters and starts, immerses itself in as many of the small pools which we find along the way as possible. And eventually, three hours later, reaches the top.
There, the engine collapses on the level grass of the crest (altitude: 2,240m), and surveys the incredible views to the east.
Although the mountain views are fantastic, we do not do this primarily for those, or for the fresh air, or for the comradeship of our coriders. Primarily, this is all done for the physical challenge and the effect it has on our brain chemistry. Men (and women) in lycra are, when you boil it down, pursuing happiness hormones.
Eventually recovered with the assistance of a little lunch, we drag ourselves to read the inscription on the plinth at the crest. It says this is the Dr LAPA Munnik Pass, opened in 1979 by the then health minister himself. Well, bully for you, Dr Munnik, but as the internet says, everybody knows it as Bastervoetpad Pass.…
But perhaps the now severely politically incorrect official name of the pass is why, to put it gently, the road is not fully maintained. In fact, it is so rough only the most macho 4x4 could make it.
But ours is not to dwell on these negative things. The road down the other side is in even worse condition, being made up of rounded stones and boulders of all sizes. But ride it we must.
The theory is the faster you descend, the better. Choose a course and look not at the stones you are about to hit with disastrous consequences, but a medium distance ahead, and go, they say.
Although by now we are bone weary, we face another 30km up rough gravel district roads to our night stop in this empty montane sheep farming area — SA’s answer to the Scottish Highlands.
Up and down, up and down. No vehicles on the road. Eventually we see some farmhouses in the distance. And more eventually — as always, after a longer ride than we had than bargained for — we deposit ourselves at the gate of the farmer where we have arranged to sleep, making our problem his.
Beautiful hospitality follows. Hospitality is the invariable pattern from farmers in these big-sky areas, but it should never be taken for granted.
The next morning, we ride 30km to Rhodes, where we hope to revert to our consumer selves. That is, out of the hot sun and into the bar by 12 noon!
We book into one of Rhodes’s many delightful cottages, filled with memorabilia. Two stuffed effigies of an old couple in farmyard clothing are on the stoep, staring fixedly onto the road. In the old days, your stoep edged the street — after all, that’s where the entertainment was, before TV. We pose for pictures with the old couple, but they say nothing.
The next morning, with various degrees of fortitude, we face the climb to Naude’s Nek pass (altitude: 2,587m), the highest gravel road in SA.
Trap, trap, trap … no wonder they call this mechanism a trapfiets (stepbike). The gravel road winds almost interminably upwards. Along the way there are a few highland guesthouses which cling to life.
Eventually, again, the top is reached. The relief is so great that various members of our party remove some of their clothing to ride down. I cannot give further details.
Another truly bad road, but this one is still used by local traffic which has no alternative. Down we wind to the rolling green hills and valleys below — the well-watered area above Maclear.
We spend the night in a cramped trout lodge. The next morning, we enthusiastically assault the last section through grasslands and planted forests to Maclear. Trucks piled high with thick logs trundle past us. The temptation is to hold onto the back of a truck, as daredevils used to do in my youth. But today we are too aware of the risks.
Along the way we have not experienced much wildlife, but plenty of domestic animals. Because of the drought, there have been many sheep grazing beside the roads where the grass is thicker and we have often been unable to prevent them running long distances in front of us. Likewise, a black donkey ran for about 5km in front of us before we tricked it into peeling off.
Lastly, we encounter a pack of barking, shaggy wild domestic dogs; because they are familiar with humans, they have the potential to take us down and kill us. But when one of our number is blocked on the road, she transforms them from ogres to wimps by throwing stones at them and calling out the magic word “voetsek”.
Maclear is civilisation in the form of Boxer stores and every other discount-claiming retailer. Most South Africans live on the cheapest merchandise possible, oblivious to the abundance of nature around them. We are back to the realities of our country.
Teigue Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours.