Thursday, December 23, 2010

To Hell and Back (L)

I don't know if it already exists, but if there had to be a list of "The 100 places in South Africa you have to see before you die" then Gamkaskloof would definitely make it on to the list.  To get there you have to cross half of the Swartberg Mountain Pass, which would probably also be on that list, and then approximately 50 kilometres down the Gamkaskloof valley until you reach the place called "The Hell". To get to The Hell you need a bit more than just a 4x4 or an adventure bike, you need time, skill and determibation as well. It takes approximately 2 hours to cover a 37 km road, and when you get there you realize that there is not much to do there ather than taking the 2 hour drive back again. So, it is all the way back up the valley until you reach the Swartberg Mountain Pass again, for more twists and turns until you feel like you are on Mother Earth again. In the biking circles you are still considered a rookie if you have not done The Hell trip with your adventure bike, so today was my big day to finally graduate. 
Half way up the pass

The Beauty and The Beast

I was fortunate to have a biking buddy with me today in the form of my brother-in-law. He is actually a Harley Davidson fan and when he decided on buying a second bike just to commute, he chose one of Harley's younger cousins, the Buel Ulysses X12X.  Considered to be an "adventure sports bike", despite the fact that is has a drive belt instead of a chain, my BIL thought that going to The Hell with me wasn't such a bad idea. So it was me and him starting off with the Montagu Pass and then on to Oudshoorn, all on gravel  to warm up and finally making our way towards the Swartberg Mountains. The Swartberg Mountains are probably the most impressive mountain range in Southern Africa, and the Swartberg Mountain Pass probably one of the most spectacular mountain passes in Africa. But the plan was not to do the entire mountain pass, but just up to the turn-off to Gamkaskloof which is a kilometer or two after reaching "Die Top" (The Top). The early morning gravel ride went exceptionally well. We took the same route I took the day before and riding at 120km/h on the smooth gravel was just clean fun. Well, clean for me, he was covered in dust. In Oudshoorn we filled our stomachs and bikes and headed in the direction of the Swartberg Mountains. On our way up we stopped for one or two pictures but were more excited about what was lying ahead than getting a good shot. We've heard so many stories about this desolate place where no-one will ever survive alone, and we couldn't wait to see it ourselves. I have been over the Swartberg Mountains many times, even crossed it on a mountain bike before, but never took the turn-off to Gamkaskloof. "You need at least a 4x4 to get there", my dad always used to say, and everyone else that has been there confirmed that. Or if you want to be added to the "Aventure Bike Riders Club", then you need to do it on an adventure bike....even if it is a Buel.

Friendly warning signs
Two signs with warnings met as at the turnoff to Gamkaskloof. It was already close to midday when we started our journey into the unknown. The adrenalin was pumping and we were ready to take on the challenge as if getting up the Swartberg Mountain Pass wasn't challenging enough. The road is bad, not bad enough to say that one cannot do it with a normal vehicle, but I would never take it on with my Volkswagen Polo. Besides, after a while the road surface gets really bad, the turns sharper and at some places so steep that it was difficult enough to negotiate your way through the turns even with a motorbike. Then there are drifts which were relatively shallow being summer now, but would not allow a normal sedan to pass through after a few drops of rain.  Then there are rocks and more rocks. I actually dented my front rim as I was flying over a small speed bump and hit a rock that was sticking out in the middle of some other rocks. If the rocks, the steep cliffs or the loneliness wasn't going to kill one of us, then for sure the temperature was. When we came up the mountain pass the temperature dropped from 28 to 13 degrees, but as we started descending into the valley, it climbed back all the way up past 30 degrees Celsius. At some points the road was not bad at all, but you could never let your guard down. The road conditions changed without warning. It is when you put speed up when it gets a bit scary when there is a sudden turn with a steep cliff in front of you. We stopped quite frequently takig a smoke break and picture session, but yet again the pictures never showed it as magnificant as it really is. There are only two places in the world where I have been where I felt very insignificant, and today I added a third. Being down in the valley surrounded by mountains was quite a humbling experience. As we were riding I kept telling myself that The Hell couldn't be much further away, but then you go around another corner and see the road snaking on for kilometres in front of you. And the road surface wasn't getting any better as we went along.

Seemingly never ending road
Suddenly we reached the steepest drop where the actual road was going down into the valley.  I have never witnessed such a narrow and steep pass before. In front of us was The Hell. From where we were standing we couldn't see much happening down there..."Very quiet for hell", I thought to myself. The heat was there, but none of the sinners were in sight. The road leading down into the valley was a very narrow single lane, and very steep. Fortunately you could from a distance see if there were vehicles approaching, and today there weren't many on the road. Descending into the valley was on both brakes 100% of the time. There were quite a lot of loose rocks and gravel, so I was already worrying about coming back up. When we reached the bottom we were met by an employee of Cape Nature who told me that there were not much going on there, except for a small shop with very expensive cooldrinks". ("Net  'n winkeltjie Meneer...maar die koeldrank is f*kken duur"). If that was all there was, then I guess a "f@#&n duur" cooldrink was just what I was going to have. We drove on for another kilometer or two and found the kiosk with a beautiful lawn and quite a relaxed atmosphere. If this was what hell looks like, then I am all for going there depart from this life. But that was it, nothing much else. One could stay over and do some hiking trails, but apart from that there is nothing to do, other than listening to the barking of the baboons maybe.

After we had a "f@#&n duur" beer instead of the "f@#&n duur" cooldrink, we decided to head home. We were riding much faster than on our way in, but we knew what to expect and we were going for it. It was here where I hit the rock and dented my rim, but apart from that, we were riding like pros. I think I positively earned my off-road biking wings today, and so did my BIL on his Buel. We passed a couple of drifts as well, and I am rather pleased to say that was also "passed with flying colours". I still get nervous when I see a road covered by water, but after today I think I am much more confident that I might get through the next one without actually dropping my bike in the water and soaking my camera in the process as well. When we reached the Swartberg Mountain Pass again, we were quite pleased with ourselves. Unfortunately when we reached "The Top" again, the Buel's drive belt broke. There we were, stuck on the top of the Swartberg Mountains with no cell phone reception. I rode down the pass the call the AA, but as I was speaking to them a pickup approached me from behind. On the pick-up was my BIL and his Buel. A Good Samaritan offered to take him all the way home to Reebok. Finding a spare drive belt for a Buel in the Southern Cape is not going to be easy, but that is tomorrow's worry. We reached our goal. We managed to get to The Hell and back....well...sort of back. It was definitely one of my best bike trips so far, one to be remembered for a long time. And I can vouch, it is definitely one of the 100 places in South Africa  to see before you die.

Looking down at The Hell in Gamkaskloof

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