Monday, March 12, 2012

Gravel 101 - The re-exam

About six months ago I had a nasty fall with my bike on a gravel road in Namibia. What I didn't know then was that it was not only my bike that got written off, but also my confidence to ride gravel roads. I poured my heart out on the BMW forum and the response was so uplifting and inspiring that I decided to include a bit of gravel riding on a trip I had planned to Plettenberg Bay. 

My route from Cape Town took me straight to Mossel Bay where I had to "deviate to the scenic route" which would include the Montagu Pass as well as the Prince Alfreds Pass, both gravel roads. My other option was the easy N2 straight to Plettenberg Bay, but because of all the motivation and advice I received on the forum I decided to "go for gold".

I was a bit worried when I left Mossel Bay around 13:45 because rain was predicted for this area and I was already through two downpours heading towards Mossel Bay. The last thing I wanted was to slip and slide down Alfreds Pass. I was here to rewrite "Gravel 101 - Riding Gravel Roads" after I horribly failed the module which focusses on "Sand Riding Techniques". I was not prepared for "Gravel 201 - Riding Wet Slippery Roads" yet. I filled up in Blanco and was checking out the low lying clouds on the Outeniqua Mountains. I had no idea what it would look like closer to Knysna and Plett. I had no alternative other than crossing the mountain and hoping for the best once I got to Alfreds Pass which is over the Montagu Pass and via "Die Langkloof", 120 kilometres further down the road". No turning back then.

Montagu Pass

The Montagu Pass was as beautiful as ever. The first section of road into the valley was completely dry and when I left the tar behind I could already feel my whole body going into minor spasm attacks. After about a 100 meters I remembered the advice from the forum and slowed down considerably. "It was the sand that was a concern and not the hard gravel" I kept telling myself. Though I still had about a 2 hours ride ahead with rain looming in the distance I had to make sure that I kept a comfortable pace. After the bridge on the way up I realised like many times in the past that I feel much more comfortable going uphill compared to downhill. When I go down I have that fear of pulling the front brake and letting the front wheel slip out underneath me like I did many times as a kid on my bicycle. I have much more control over the speed as I go up and the chance of slipping on loose gravel is less. Fortunately for me, going up is basically all you do on the Montagu Pass if you approach it from the side I did. 

There were a few areas where the road was bad, especially where they made these little berms to stop the water from eroding the road. I managed that well and the only times I got a bit worried was when I crossed some loose pebbles which felt as I was riding on marbles. I was wondering if I shouldn't have deflated my tyres a bit, but earlier I consciously decided against that because of the long tar section through Langkloof. As I was getting closer to the top I was also getting closer to the clouds, but fortunately there was no rain, just mist. Once over the top there was still a 7km section to the R62. This section also had a bit of loose gravel but doing around 50km/h I had no problems keeping the bike under control.


The sun was shining brightly when I got my wheels back on tar. I looked at the mountain and all along the road I could see the clouds pouring over the back of the mountain. I knew what that meant, wet conditions on the other side. I wasn't going to let that deter me and decided to deal with the possibility of rain like my dad always says to me, "We'll cross the bridge when we get there". My ride over the Montagu Pass already inspired confidence and I was in good spirits.

My plan was to stay on tar until I got to Avontuur, but 50 kilometers down the R62 the lady with the sweet voice on my GPS suggested that I take a shortcut straight to De Vlugt. The nice lady didn't say anything about the road surface or conditions, but I guess the "Unpaved Road" clue on the GPS screen should've warned me that it was not going to be without mental and physical challenges. I stopped at the turn-off and thought that a short-cut might be a good idea to beat the rain to De Vlugt. I ventured out on my second gravel road with caution as this decision was rather unplanned. I didn't want to jinx my trip because of changed plans. As a good friend of mine always says, "You change your mind you lose your luck!"

Road To De Vlugt

Less than a 100 meters into unknown territory, I already started cursing myself for the weakness I have for sweet female voices. The road condition was not as good as the Montague Pass road, but with determination I decided to press on ahead. This was the part that tested the "Get back on the horse again if you still want to remain a cowboy"-theory. I wasn't about to let an ego thing make the decision for me. I decided to stick to the road regardless of untested theories. This time I was in it for the sake of "adventure". I have never been on this road before and didn't know what to expect, but with lots of patience and the occasional glimpse on my GPS screen I managed to negotiate all the tight turns by slowing down way in advance. The bit of advice from the forum that I really took to heart was the "take it slow" bit. Up until now I was fortunate not to have hit loose sand, but I am sure it would've been much easier to manage the sand travelling at 40 km/h rather than 80. 

The road meanders all along the Keurbooms River and has some very sharp bends with some sections that are very rocky.  I never exceeded 80km/h, most of the time sticking to 50 in order to enjoy the scenery as well. What a beautiful place it turned out to be. I had no idea when I was going to arrive at De Vlugt, but I got there much sooner than anticipated and was very much relieved that I survived another 25 kms of gravel road.

De Vlugt

I don't know what you would call De Vlugt, but it is beautiful little place nestled in the Outeniqua Mountains. On arrival I realised that I missed out on a beautiful section of Alfreds Pass, the part coming from Avontuur. It didn't bother me too much because I covered another gravel section which was also very nice to see and which gave me enough opportunities to build confidence. I stopped at the De Vlugt Tea Garden where I had a long conversation with the owner Annelize van Rooyen. She suggested I taste some of her homemade ginger beer and we talked about the pass and the amount of people passing her tea garden daily. When she mentioned that they were expecting rain I realised that I had completely forgotten about my concern for the rain. It was clear that rain is much needed in that part of the world, but I stood there thinking that I also wanted them to have rain, but "just not right now, please Lord". Annelize warned me that the road gets VERY slippery when wet and I started wondering if I can get the credit for Gravel 101 if I can pass Gravel 201 without pre-exam preparationsAfter finishing my ginger beer I decided to get on with my real challenge, Prince Alfreds Pass...hopefully in dry conditions. I had no idea what to expect on the other side of the mountain, but I still had this side to conquer first. I guess I was getting very close to that proverbial "bridge to cross" now.

The Prince Alfreds Pass

The road from De Vlugt immediately started out quite steep. The road condition was the same as on the road towards De Vlugt, but it was clear that it had more "unrepaired flood damage". I managed to get through some "dongas" but it was on this section when I once again had to admit  that my bike was physically too big for me. Around some of the tight corners the sand was eroded with only bumpy bed rock remaining. This means navigating around a corner while negotiating my way over open rock sections. Although I managed to stay on top I knew that if I had to put my foot down that I would not be able to keep my bike upright. This is what really concerns me about the size of my bike. I think doing cones would be a good exercise in acquiring the skills to balance the bike. On a slope however you only have the option (in my case) of one side where you can use your foot for support or the other side where you have less support than what Juju has in Orania. The other side would mean a definite topple over, or "omdonner" as I prefer to call it. Fortunately I am relatively OK with handling my bike around cones and passed these little challenges with flying colours. No harm though in acquiring more cone riding skills in future. 

I did the remainder of the steep section with ease, but it was while going through the Diepwalle Forest section that I had one of those "body spasm moments". The road, although well maintained, had loose gravel around some of the corners, and sometimes even on the straight sections. I was again doing between 50 and 80 km/h, but still taking it much slower than what I normally would've done in the past on a road with similar conditions. Then it happened...

You know that feeling you get when you hit a patch in the road and it feels as if your front wheel is doing its own thing and your back wheel doesn't know if it should follow or not? That feeling of riding on "slap pap" when all that stuff of "stand up, look up, open up" makes you wonder if it shouldn't be the other way around.... "Look down, slow down and stop your friggen bike!" My heart skipped a beat and my legs became like jelly. I was thinking what a bummer it would be if after all this gravel, I now lose it and put myself back in Namibia. I obviously have not conquered my fear, but I certainly have isolated it. It is that friggen wobbly that the bike does when I travel over loose gravel, THAT is the fear which resulted from my accident in "Nam". A similar feeling I got the first time I jumped out of an aeroplane and I couldn't find something solid to stand on before my chute deployed properly. That (un)familiar feeling of not being in control of the situation. 

I went through the loose gravel unscathed only the by the grace of God and had to stop to catch my breath. I was a bit disappointed to know that the fear has not subsided after the morning's gravel exposure, but on the other hand I now knew exactly WHAT the fear was. It's not gravel roads per se, it is the inability to control my bike in these conditionsI could still enjoy the undiscovered roads, as long as I do it at a comfortable pace and never encounter loose soil. The gravel road, the bends, the loose rocks, are all manageable. It is the fear of hitting that loose patch and losing control that freaks me out. 

The ride was wonderful, it never rained and I arrived safely in Plettenberg Bay about 3 hours after my departure from Mossel Bay. I feel much better today than I did three weeks ago when I wrote that heart-rendering post on the forum. My bike is actually dirty today and I am very proud of it. I will work on that loose floating feeling and how to counter-act when it happens. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy my bike and make good use of it on tar as well as on gravel. I am not there yet, but this ride was a huge confidence booster and put me back in the saddle again. I guess it is all about staying within your skill level and taking your time. It IS about the journey and not the destination. And eventually it IS about staying alive to tell the story. By riding slow you can even have some pictures to show...... 


  1. Great, honest trip report. Love the photos.
    Repeat often and your confidence will increase and the sphincter clenching moments will decrease.

  2. Nee Wat Manie....jy mag maar hoor. No need to worry about your fears anymore.

  3. Did that route in 1967 when 15 years old on a Honda 50cc from Plett to Uniondale to see some girl; she was more drama than the trip which was in June, in the rain, in the cold, in the mud...

    And back again 3 days later.

    Have even done it in snow there.

    Fond memories of the rides; largely forgotten the girl..