What is it about the Karoo, and Route 62, that makes you want to go back again and again? Astride a classic motorcycle with friends, Tyson Jopson discovered the secret.
Behind the scenes photos: a classic ride along South Africa’s Route 62
There’s a wonderfully outlandish scene in the classic British film Withnail and I that took up residence in my brain the moment I saw it. Richard E. Grant drives a Jaguar MK2 from Cumbria to London with a severely hungover Paul McGann flopping around in the back. Grant swerves through traffic like a madman, gripped by the idea of ‘making time!’ while Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child plays in the background.
My first introduction to the Karoo was similar. Except I was the Voodoo Child, bobbing up and down in the back seat of a maroon Kombi between two cousins while my uncle, dead set on breaking the distance/time continuum, sped down the N1 like a madman. Just after a blur that looked a lot like Laingsburg, we hit a fowl with the rear-view mirror. I’m not sure if it was guinea or other because it evaporated into thin air on impact. All that remained was a cracked and bloody mirror dangling beside the car by two electrical cables like a robot quarry.
That was 25 years ago. This time I was behind the wheel. Or handlebar, rather: astride a Royal Enfield Classic 500, happy to take it easy and leave the Karoo with as much fowl as it had on arrival. I was in good company. Beside me, on another Enfield, was vegetarian, long-time friend and prince of awful puns Alasdair McCulloch. Behind me, riding pillion, was Kati Auld, partner of two years and one half of a relationship that was at first awkward, then magical and on its way to reaching that glorious point where you can be in the same room and not speak for hours and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
A year ago a situation like that would have caused me some discomfort. Fifteen and, well, I’d have been a teenager alone in a room with a girl, so it would have been closer to sheer, blind panic. After three days of cruising through a constant Karoo, with the wind rippling over your cheeks and your mind alone and free, you start to think about that sort of thing … how different you were back then.
Like all good road trips, this one had started once we’d peeled off the highway. At the top of Franschhoek Pass there was an introductory lesson on the perils of not having a windshield. Nearing Theewaterskloof Dam, its dead trees clawing out of the shallows like the souls of the River Styx, rain started to fall. It wasn’t hard rain but (in the interest of style) we’d opted for open-face helmets and the droplets stung our cheeks like Lilliputian harpoons as we raced past Villiersdorp in search of open sky.
We found respite in Robertson, under the blue shadows of the Langeberg, and stopped for lunch. We walked away from our army-green machines, all leather jackets and jeans and the swagger of Steve McQueen. They say two’s company. Well, three’s a gang.
Safe through Kogmanskloof and Montagu, we were finally on Route 62. The tar was darker, the lines straighter and the sky bigger. Al’s white jacket glistened in the sun as he thumped on ahead.
In Barrydale, we hung around the rusted old fuel pumps in front of the Karoo Moon Motel, posing and laughing while the sky turned dark blue. That night at the Karoo Art Hotel, a local musician played the trombone and another a piano that had a samurai sword and a half-drunk Black Label on its top. It was a Friday but we were the only out-of-towners, slipping into a scene that didn’t care if we were there. It felt like we’d been let in on a secret, devoid of airs and graces.
On the second day there was the obligatory stop at Ronnies Sex Shop where, beneath a ceiling of bright panties and faded photos, we sipped colas and watched the first tourist buses roll in. After Calitzdorp, where we caught the town’s last order of home-made pies, we said goodbye to Route 62 and headed north on a gravel road towards the Swartberg mountains, grey peaks disappearing into clouds that hung above each like lampshades. We passed donkeys, and sheep whose bleats sounded like humans imitating sheep.
And then there was the Swartberg Pass. Built by a madman, an oracle, a genius, it’s the kind of pass made for two wheels. With buffs pulled over our faces, we raced higher and higher into the afternoon cold, rounding rocky hairpin bends curving above sheer bluffs. At Skelmdraai bend, we stopped to take in the view. Kati climbed a nearby hill and Al rode further up the pass for better photos.
Standing there, alone, I let my mind’s eye ascend to grasp the scene from above: Al winding up the pass and the lovely Kati, face peeking out between a red beanie and scarf, on an ancient koppie looking down into the valley below. Swartberg Pass was built in 1886; the first Enfield 15 years later. That exact picture could have been taken more than a century ago.
In Matjiesfontein, a wonderfully kitsch Groundhog-Day railway town, that picture didn’t change. That afternoon, our last, as faux bellhops dressed in red reported for duty at the Lord Milner Hotel, we rode our motorcycles to the other side of the tracks where a group of young boys were hanging out. ‘Again, again!’ they cried as we gave them rides until the sun went down. Again, again, I thought. Here where nothing changes, why do so many keep coming back? I wondered when I would too. Maybe it’ll be on another motorcycle. Or maybe it’ll be in a maroon Kombi with Kati beside me, dodging fowl while Voodoo Child plays in the background. Because nothing changes in the Karoo. What changes is you.
Day One: Cape Town to Barrydale
Distance 290 km
Allow 6 hours
Head out of Cape Town early to beat the N1 traffic towards Durbanville. Take the Klapmuts exit, then right onto the R44 under the highway and left onto the wine farm-studded R45 into Franschhoek. Then it’s left onto Lambrechts Road and up the magnificent Franschhoek Pass. Stop at the viewpoint (1). After Theewaterskloof Dam, turn left at the T-junction to stay on the R45 past Villiersdorp. Then it’s onto the R60 to Robertson. At the right time of year you’ll see gorgeous spring blooms on the roadside. After lunch (2) hop onto the R62 and up the pass to Montagu (allow extra time, there are often stop-gos). Head east on Route 62 north of the Langeberg and into Barrydale for a rather unusual night’s stay (3).
Day 2: Barrydale to Prince Albert
Distance 215 km
Allow 7 hours
Hop back on the R62 and grab a coffee at Route 62’s famous roadside stop (4). Then it’s into Calitzdorp for home-made pies (5) and north on Calitz Street, which
soon becomes a gravel road (brown on map) to a T-junction. Turn left onto Swartberg Pass. Give yourself at least three hours to get over the pass, and stop often for photos (7). On the other side, join the R407 to Prince Albert.
Day Three: Prince Albert to Matjiesfontein
Distance 160 km
Allow 3 hours
It’s a short riding day, but you’ll want to leave early enough to give yourself time in Matjiesfontein. There’s a lot to check out. After brekkie (9) and a browse (10) in Prince Albert, take the only road, the R407, out of town to the N1, where you’ll see an Atlantic Oil fuel station on your right at the junction. Turn left on the N1 towards Laingsburg. It’s another 30 kilometres from there. When you see the small house with the red roof on your left, you’ll know you’ve arrived. Head to the pub (11) for a celebratory drink.
We did the first two days of a seven-day classic bike tour into the Garden Route and Karoo. The full tour costs R24 000 (incl. accommodation, excl. fuel). drifters.co.za
1. Best view of Franschhoek, Franschhoek Pass
Look out for the lay-by on the right after the second hairpin.
2. Bourbon Street, Robertson
Surprisingly good veggie burgers (R72) for a place that serves everything from Tex-Mex to sushi. 0236265934.
3. Karoo Art Hotel, Barrydale
Gorgeous themed rooms in a quirky building with many nooks to explore. (Room15, great bath!) From R560 pp sharing B&B. 0285721226.
4. Ronnies Sex Shop, Route 62
Classic roadside coffee (R15) stop with some rather naughty adornments. Tel 0285721153.
5. Die Handelshuis, Calitzdorp
Home-made ostrich or lamb pies (R35) that’ll make your mouth smile. Tel 0442133172.
6. Calitzdorp Station Bar, Calitzdorp
Great little hidden hang-out in a warehouse next to the railway line. Tel 0814733232.
7. Skelmdraaibend, Swartberg Pass.
Lovely viewpoint that looks down over the Groot Swartberg Nature Reserve. Look out for the ‘Skelmdraai’ sign.
8. Dennehof Karoo Guest House, Prince Albert
Beautiful old farmhouse converted into guest rooms. From R580 pp sharing. Tel 0728423056.
9. Swartberg Hotel, Prince Albert.
A Full House breakfast (R65) that lives up to its name. Tel 0235411332.
10. Country Store and Stay, Prince Albert.
Antiquities and old-town relics as fascinating as they are charming. Tel 0235411077.
11. Matjies Motel, Matjiesfontein
Decent rooms set inside the gardens of the famous Lord Milner Hotel. Be sure to grab a drink at the adjacent Laird’s Arms too(the barman might even whip out the disco ball). From R555 per person sharing. Tel 0235613011.
12. Railway Museum, Matjiesfontein
A blast from the past – see an old railroad switch and peer into the station master’s office. R10. Tel 0235613011.
13. The Old Post Office, Matjiesfontein
Buy books from the building where Olive Schreiner sent letters. Tel 0235613011.
What we’d do differently
- Worn full-face helmets.
- Given ourselves more time on Swartberg Pass – we ran out of light.
- Spent less time looking for alternative routes to Matjiesfontein. The railway service roads are all restricted.
- Called ahead to restaurants to check opening times. The Karoo works in mysterious ways.
Read more from this story in the January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our January issue features a bucket list of 45 experiences to have at least once in South Africa, a new way to experience the Wild Coast, and a beautiful beach holiday in Sri Lanka.