Driving to Cape Town? Try this three-day route from Joburg. It’s packed with great gravel roads for adventure bikers, but you can do a tar version in your sedan too.
Isn’t the N1 just the most uninspiring bit of South African civil engineering? Sure, it has a purpose – it’s the most efficient way to get from one end of the country to the other – but it’s straight and soporific and one particular encounter with it made me vow to avoid it as often as possible…
I was a student at the University of Johannesburg. Like most students I was also very broke. But I did have access to a van. Put those two together and, whether you like it or not, you become a delivery man. Sometimes for money, sometimes for beer. Sometimes for money for beer. One crisp Wednesday afternoon I was asked to drop off a set of office chairs in Benoni by Friday morning. The catch? The chairs were in Cape Town.
I wrangled a friend into my haphazard logistics business and we drove through the night, fuelled by youth and Red Bulls. At 8am the next morning the chairs were in the van. By 11pm that night the urgent furniture was arranged around a large mahogany desk, ready for some very important people to put their very important bottoms on the next morning.
It wasn’t a very smart idea and we both slept for two days straight after, reliving near-escapes with idiotic truck drivers in nightmares while our bodies twitched and tweaked from the effects of too much caffeine.
A short while ago, I got the chance to do it differently, the way it should be done… slowly. Instead of a van, I had a BMW R1200 GS Rallye to test ride, courtesy of BMW South Africa. Instead of a ludicrous 15 hours to get from Joburg to Cape Town, I had three days. The plan, of course, was to steer clear of the N1 as much as possible, link up some of the country’s best gravel roads, and check out some of the platteland’s hidden towns.
So, naturally, I spent the first four hours on the bloody N1. I’d attended a rather jovial wedding the night before and got a late start. It was time for some in-helmet reasoning: Cape Town is a considerable distance, even with three days; you want to get some miles behind you before you start taking detours. Otherwise you’re just buggering around in your backyard, right? Right!
Satisfied with that logic (it helps when there’s nobody around to disagree) I finally say goodbye to the N1 just after Bloem, hit the tar R706 to Jagersfontein and then take a dirt road down to Philippolis just as the sun starts sliding its fingers down the smooth belly of a blushing sky. Home to celebrated authors and artists, Philippolis is full of colourful stories woven into its broekie lace-lined streets. That night, however, as so often happens when you arrive by bike, the conversations at the bar at Oom Japie se Huis all revolve around two wheels. I inhale Lorna Manning’s delicious lamb curry and drink beer at a hefty wooden bar with local engineer Uys Fick.
He shows me a photo of an immaculate 1982 Honda Goldwing that he likes to ride out into the Free State sunset and Lorna tells me about how she used to ride bicycles all the time and then, as I bid them farewell and turn in for the night, says at least I’ll get some sleep because the peacocks are quiet this time of year.
Early the next morning I cross the Orange River beneath an orange sky. It’s so cold that I’m wearing four layers beneath my bike jacket but the wind still pierces through me like a vicious gelid ghost. The only respite is the GS1200’s heated grips. I turn them on and let the warmth seep into my fingers. The rising sun finally joins the effort and slowly, three hours later, it’s on the gravel roads beneath the Sneeuberg mountains that I’m finally fully thawed out.
I turn off the engine and strip down to lose a few layers. There’s nobody here. Just me, the mountains and these gloriously gravelley farm roads. Oh, and that goat over there giving me a beady eye.
Back on the bike, with the Compassberg’s high peak behind me, I find the most magnificent surprise, in disguise: a large electric gate. At first, I’m deflated. But a sign reads ‘Have a safe drive’ and a large green button beckons me in and soon I’m cruising between a magnificent collection of private farms on either side of a gravel road to Nieu-Bethesda. The road dips and curves and as I stand up on the pegs, eland, zebra and even a black-backed jackal crane their necks to get a better look at the strange rumbling centaur. The throttle is smooth, the suspension on-point and between the scenery and my steed, I’m grinning inside my helmet like a lunatic. Now this is a road trip!
After lunch in Nieu-Bethesda I take the only tar road out of town, up Rubidgekloof Pass, down Paardekloof and Perrieshoogte passes and into Graaff-Reinet. To the west, the Valley of Desolation hides behind striking dolerite columns. It’s a short ride out of town and an even shorter walk up to the beautiful viewpoint inside Camdeboo National Park, but I’ve got my sights set on more gravel. I am, after all, riding a bike built to be off-road.
Soon after Aberdeen I find a dirty way over a dry Kariega riverbed towards Beaufort West and leave small rooster tails on wide farm roads as I grow ever-more confident on the big adventure bike beneath me. It’s heavy but superbly balanced, and riding these farm roads feels more like dancing than driving and so I open the throttle some more and waltz down to Beaufort West on a dusty dance floor.
‘There better be coffee in Merweville!’ That’s the mantra as I clock it past the Karoo National Park the following morning. I’m in luck. Muller Handelaars has just opened its doors for the day and I’m greeted with warm Karoo smiles and an even warmer cup of strong and dark before I point my front wheel towards Sutherland, aiming to be there before lunchtime.
A slew of farm gates and a splendid view at the top of Rammelkop Pass make that impossible; the arid Karoo stretches to the horizon in every direction as far as I can see, an undulating blanket of succulents and shale. Everything is still and I feel like I’m the only thing around here that’s moved for centuries. But things do move – a bird flits out of a nearby bush and a klipspringer skips by, and so must I.
On the quiet streets of Sutherland, townsfolk peep out of windows at the sun-bleached streets and it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being a cowboy riding into a frontier town. The Tankwa Karoo lies just south of here and it’s still a long ride on gravel to Ceres, but from there Cape Town is in the cross hairs, and as the afternoon winds on I know there’s just one big adventure left: Bainskloof Pass. Here, no fewer than 28 kilometres of exhilarating tar wind through the Limietberg, beneath dramatic stone arches and beside gurgling waters to the winelands town of Wellington, just an hour out of Cape Town. It’s the perfect way to end this three-day journey and, surprisingly, I find that I’ve got a little time on my side. So I turn around and ride the pass again.
Joburg to Cape Town
Each of the days ends near the N1 so you can either do the route as laid out below or you can pick the ‘day loops’ you want to do and hop back on the N1 to cover ground. In a sedan, you’ll want to skip the gravel (some sections are heavily corrugated, slow going or quite tricky) and take the tar roads between towns.
Day 1: Joburg to Philippolis
Distance: 600 kilometres
Allow: six and a half hours
Take the N1 to Bloemfontein and then the R706 to Jagersfontein. Pass the R704 turn-off to Trompsburg and the R704 turn-off to Jagersfontein (it can be a little confusing because the road changes from the R706 to R704, despite the fact that you don’t turn at all). Just after the turn-off to Jagersfontein, the road becomes gravel. Continue straight for about 10 kilometres, then left at the T-Junction. It’s about 50 kilometres on gravel and then a short stretch on the tarred R717 to Oom Japie se Huis on the main road in Philippolis (1) and about two kilometres on gravel from there to Die Groenhuis (2).
Day 2: Philippolis to Beaufort West
Distance: 500 kilometres
Allow: nine hours
Take the R717 to Colesberg, then the N9 to Middelburg and the gravel R398 to Richmond. After 29 kilometres, turn left at the ‘Compassberg’ sign (note: not the Graaff-Reinet / Gordonville / Kompasberg sign that appears after 18 kilometres). You’ll eventually reach a large metal gate; open it and continue through the private nature reserve (3). After Doornberg Guest Farm, keep left to land in Nieu-Bethesda’s Martin Street, where you’ll find Die Waenhuis (4). Take the gravel road and tar pass out of town and then turn right onto the N9 and down Paardekloof Pass to Graaff-Reinet and Camdeboo National Park(5). Hop back on the N9 to Aberdeen and then the R61 to Beaufort West. Turn right at the ‘Nelspoort’ sign after about 42 kilometres if you want to do the last bit of this route on gravel. Keep left after seven kilometres, cross the concrete bridge over the Kariega River and continue for about 100 kilometres to Beaufort West. Hop onto the N1 and head north for about 10 kilometres to reach Karoo Gateway Airport and Guesthouse (6)
Day 3: Beaufort West to Cape Town
Distance: 630 kilometres
Allow: eight hours
Take the N1 south for about 13 kilometres and then turn right onto gravel at the sign for Fraserburg. Continue for 100 kilometres to Muller Handelaars (8) in Merweville for coffee. Then head west on the gravel road to Sutherland. It’s about 100 kilometres through beautiful Karoo scenery and over Rammelkop Pass (you’ll need to open some farm gates along the way). Grab a bite at the Blue Moon (9) and check out the Sutherland Observatory (10) if you have time. Take the R354 out of Sutherland for about 40 kilometres, over Verlatenkloof Pass and then right onto the gravel R356. Continue for about 110 kilometres, then left onto the R355, which becomes the tar R46 to Ceres. Take the R46 out of Ceres, over Michell’s Pass, then left onto the R43 and right onto the R301 to Wellington and Bainskloof Pass. Just before the pass starts you’ll find a great lunch stop at the Calabash Bush Pub (11). Then it’s down the magnificently winding pass into Wellington, out on the R44 and onto the N1 at Klapmuts to head south to Cape Town.
More on the BMW R1200GS Rallye
Adventure biking is picking up in SA and, unlike our 4×4 market, riders are actually taking their bikes off-road.The big Boxer engine puts out 125bhp, and rider modes have been refined so that you can set the engine mapping and chassis separately (fantastic for loose gravel, sand, or rocky terrain). It’s remarkably nimble for a 250kg machine, yet still wonderfully comfortable on long rides. bmw-motorrad.co.za
1. Oom Japie se Huis, Philippolis. A bar, bookshop and restaurant all rolled into one, this classic Karoo abode (note the curved corrugated roof) does a cracking Karoo lamb curry. From R95. Bookings essential. Tel 0517737072.
2. Die Groen huis Guest House, Philippolis. One of three restored Karoo townhouses on a quiet gravel road just out of town. You’ll get a good sunrise from the back stoep and an even better sunset from the front. Self-catering from R300 per person. Tel 0832904269.
3. Highlands Windy Ridge Eureka Private Nature Reserve. This tract of land straddles the gravel road just west of Compassberg peak. It’s gated on either end but thoroughfare is permitted (just press the button at the gate) and you’ll spot eland, springbok, zebra and maybe even jackal along the way.
4. Die Waenhuis, Nieu-Bethesda. This artfully decorated restaurant is the definition of Karoo chic. Lamb burgers from R65. Tel 0824972138
5. Valley of Desolation, Graaff-Reinet. Look out over the Karoo from the top of dolerite columns that extend up to 120 metres above the valley. Entrance from R35 per person. Tel 0498923453.
6. Karoo Gateway Guesthouse & Airport, Beaufort West.Neat guest house with a good bar but the novelty of watching planes land over sundowners may wear off when you discover they also taxi at 04:00. Rooms from R495 per person. Tel 0234143444.
7. Die Spinwiel Antiques Shop and Museum, BeaufortWest. Delightfully quaint and packed with signs you’ll recall from yesteryear. Entrance is R10. Tel 0829358110
8. Muller Handelaars, Merweville. Don’t expect tourist trinkets and fanfare. This is one of those salt-of-the-earth country stores there to service the locals, and that’s what makes it great. Coffee from R12. Tel 0235014006.
9. The Blue Moon, Sutherland. A guest-house lunch stop with great boerekos and classic Karoo atmosphere. Get a table on the stoep and watch the windmill spin and squeak. Tel 0829620416.
10. South African Astronomical Observatory, Sutherland.Time your arrival right and take a tour of the visitors’ centre (Monday to Saturday at 10.30am and 2.30pm), R60 per person. Tel 0235712436.
11. Calabash Bush Pub, Bainskloof. The perfect place to grab some pub grub before heading down the pass. Meals from R75. Tel 0233551844.
Keep in mind
• Look out for wildlife on gravel roads. They get spooked and will run into your path.
• Farm driveways and slipways can often look similar to ‘main’ gravel roads and don’t always run perpendicular to them so keep your eyes peeled for route markers and signposts.
• Most gravel stretches between towns are less than 200km but if you’re on a motorcycle, fill up whenever you can to be safe.
This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
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