“Where do you want to go on bikes for Valentine’s day?” I asked Better Half (BH). Expecting perhaps lunch at Cape Point, or Pearly’s in Langebaan.
“Sutherland” he said.
I’ve been riding bikes for less than a year and have only obtained my licence this month, but on my F800GS (BLXM) and his GS1250R it should be do-able. It’s tar, and it’s just a few hours away.
“And then”, he continued, “we sleep over in Sutherland, do the dirt road to Calvinia, sleep over there, ride to Lambert’s Bay, sleep over there too, then home to Somerset West”.
My only dirt road experience has been the Van Der Stel Pass road, a mere few kms of dust that had me white-knuckled as I figured out how the bike would react. I climbed onto Google Maps and saw 162km of terror. But I’m always up for an adventure, so the plotting, planning, booking accommodation and paying in advance was sorted – and we were off.
Valentine’s Day in Somerset West dawned rainy and cold. We gave it until about 11, but you can only wait out the weather so long. We left with clouds clearing and more rain on the horizon, aiming for Worcestor and lunch at the roadside Spur.
A journey of 1000km starts by dropping your bike at the toll gate. Rain and a solid layer of oil simply don’t mix, and I stupidly chose the wrong line. The cashier was horrified to see a woman on a substantial-looking bike let it go down, switch it off and step away, but BH came running and we got BLXM back upright. By now it was bucketing down – including inside the first section of the tunnel where our visors immediately misted up. We soldiered on with water running down the seats into our sensitive bits and flying through the propped-open visors, to pop out on the other side onto rapidly drying roads. By the time we stopped in Worcester the sun was out and we could air ourselves and the bikes out over lunch.
From there our next stop was Matjiesfontein – a quick trip up the N1. Photo ops and something cold to drink later, we crossed the N1 and headed toward Sutherland.
In a car, the road is boring and soulless. On a bike, there are twisties, loads of twisties! Add in a nearly deserted road, and we could open up the throttle to let our beasts do what they love. BH got up to a decent speed coming into town, while I moseyed on behind as I prefer to do.
We checked in at Skitterland – a converted house from the 1800s in the typical sandstone of the area, furnished in antiques and looked after by a gracious hostess. Anelia ensured we were settled in with a breakfast pre-order menu, then left us to unwind. We had a table booked at The Blue Moon a few blocks away and the place nearly to ourselves until joined at the last minute by a farmer and his wife who were on a random road trip from Kuruman to wherever, stopping where they wanted when they wanted.
When in Sutherland, you have to see the stars – appropriately bundled up against the inevitable chill. And when your cellphone claims it can do astrophotography, you have to try. I had unfortunately left my Gorilla tripod at home, but McGuyvered together a RAM mount, hairbrush and hair elastic to form a makeshift tripod, and came out with at least two fantastic shots taken from the end of our suburban road. I continue to be extremely impressed by the Samsung Note20’s camera in low-light conditions with the right settings. It’s done better than some of the DSLRs we’ve used in the past.
Monday morning – post Valentine’s day. The inevitable trip loomed after breakfast at Skitterland, but first we made a quick turn at SALT for photos of the telescopes with our bikes, and selfies via a screenshot from the live camera feed on their website. Managed to WhatsApp my son to check the feed and gave him a wave – ah, technology!
Back to The Blue Moon for a courage strengthening milkshake, then we could delay no further. It was time to hit that dirt.
They say if you eat a live frog in the morning, nothing worse will happen to you that day. If you’re doing the R354 between Calvinia and Sutherland, start in Sutherland. The road from Sutherland to Middelpos is absolutely horrible especially after recent rains. Before our trip we’d taken the precaution of having custom mouth guards made to prevent any tooth injury should they rattle around in our heads. It turns out they were not needed. I spent the entire 79km to Middelpos with my mouth open, alternately throwing words starting with “f” and “p” at the road, and apologising to BLXM. Thank goodness no one can hear you swear on a bike, as nothing that came out of my mouth was particularly ladylike. Drifts have built-in drop-off holes either side, rocks lurk in the middle of the track to throw you up in the air, and the washboard surface simply goes on and on. That section of road is like giving birth – there is only one way out, and no-one is going to do it for you. Sheer willpower kept me upright when I hit the soft bits between hard tracks, or rattled around deeply rutted sharp bends shouting obscenities at the dirt. After what seemed like forever (but was around 2 hours), Middelpos hove into view – and being the very clever travellers we were, we took the nearest and roughest track into town, nearly losing the back ends of the bikes in the final soft sand drift. BH came close to taking out the token two pedestrians in town turning around the only streetlight.
Middelpos is the kind of place where you knock on the hotel door, and a woman goes to open up the shop just for you so you can buy a cooldrink. While you sip your Coke on the hotel verandah, their resident peacock eyes you warily. Half-way to nowhere. Dry, dusty, quiet as the grave. Slightly cooler, we once again hit the road to Calvinia. And wondered if we were still on the same road! Suddenly it was smooth and wide and well maintained. Instead of swearing and wrestling our way along, we could admire the high Karoo landscapes, get up a bit of speed and enjoy the ride. The last half of that road took less than an hour, and suddenly we were on the tar motoring into Calvinia.
I’m impressed with how BLXM handled that road, especially the terrible sections. In Enduro mode she stayed upright, heading in the right direction and didn’t buck me off. It truly is a bike capable of handling whatever you want to throw at it. As a novice rider, I am grateful for the clever engineering that has gone into that BMW.
We checked into one of the Hantam Huis units overnight, with a last minute supper booking at Die Blou Nartjie within walking distance. If you ever make a turn there, try the “Boerepizza” – a steak topped with peppadews, feta, cherry tomato and mushrooms, smothered in Bechamel sauce, sprinkled with cheese and grilled.
Early morning saw us on the road again hunting breakfast. A quick photo op at the church in Nieuwoudtville, then a drop off the edge of the world down Van Rhyn’s Pass – one of my favourite spots in the country. There is little to beat coming around the corner out of town and having the entire Knersvlakte open up in front of you. We put foot into Vanrhynsdorp for fuel (but no food), then the 20km into Vredendal where we found a new mall on the outskirts of town. Being done with the dirt, we had the bikes washed for a mere R80 a piece while we settled in at the Wimpy for brunch. The manageress was consulted regarding local roads, as we suddenly realised we would probably end up on dirt again to Lambert’s Bay if we didn’t ask. On her advice, we carried on out of town to Klawer where we turned toward Clanwilliam onto the N7. The north-south lane is a nightmare, almost completely covered in the oil of convoys of trucks and requiring attention at all times to avoid the worst of it. We turned off at Clanwilliam, past the honeybush tea harvest, stopped in Graafwater for a Coke and a respite from the constant cross-breeze, then the last few kms into Lambert’s Bay.
We were booked into Raston Guesthouse – and as in Sutherland were the only guests. Comfortable accommodation but in need of a bit of sprucing up. We again walked into town and found an incredible dinner at Isabella’s on the water’s edge. Portions are massive and prices low in this part of the world – a nearby table appeared to have ordered an entire cow on a single plate, half of which went home in doggie bags. We walked off our supper down wide empty roads with a sickle moon keeping watch.
Our last night in “other people’s beds”, breakfast again at Isabella’s with panniers packed, then it was time to head back toward home. We had it on good authority that there was a lovely tar road all the way into Piketberg.
So there we were, zooting along at a steady 120km/hr when WHAM. Dirt road. WTH?!? We just had the bikes cleaned! What followed was a more dangerous road than the Sutherland-Middelpos stretch. The surface is covered in a fine talcum powder sand, peppered with speeding Hiluxes coming the other way, and yes – ruts. End of the dirt – only to find the tar give out 100m away and another bone-rattling stretch of avoiding oncoming traffic. Our quick zip to Piketberg turned into a long and harrowing ordeal of a few metres of tar then more dirt, and the Elands Bay intersection back onto permanent tar was a very welcome sight when it came to an end.
We stopped for refreshments at the R44 / N7 intersection, having decided to avoid the N7, its oil slicks and its trucks in favour of the R44 all the way home. And that’s when the cross-wind started. We’ve (literally) been down this road before. Our last trip toward Tulbach ended leaning into the same wind from the West all the way home, with each passing truck a body-blow of turbulence. Thankfully there’s a fantastic coffee stop in the middle of a field half way between Hermon and Wellington, where we pulled up for an iced coffee and a rest. The closer we got to home, the worse the traffic and drivers became, a clear reminder of why we love the far-flung places and empty landscapes.
But we both survived. No-one fell off their bike, no-one broke any bones, no-one was left bleeding. We’re already planning our next trip. Watch this space!