Bikepacking in the Overberg

Posted by Matt Sterne on 14 February 2019

Bikepacking is whatever you want it to be, and if you have a bicycle you’re pretty much ready to go, says Matthew Sterne

We went in spring when the canola in the Overberg was at its best. Image credit: Matthew Sterne

The idea of bikepacking was an effort-less sell to my friends, who are easily seduced by alternative adventures. And so it was that four of us found ourselves on a gravel road in the Overberg, halfway between Stanford and Riviersonderend, trying to figure out how to fit our clothes, food for two days and a five-litre box wine into our bicycle bags. Space turned out to be more limited than expected and we were forced to carry the heavier items in a backpack, the one thing we were warned not to do (on a long ride, a backpack will strain your back and make you top-heavy). The plus side was that we could now argue about who would carry the backpack.

Ten minutes into our ride and we were already promising that it would be the first of many. The gravel was hard and smooth after recent rains, the landscape was vivid wheat-green and canola-yellow, and we had the road all to ourselves. We made our way past blue cranes, their heads popping out just above the wheat, and smallholdings where the pigs looked too fat to stand. As the spring sun rose in the air like a lost balloon into scattered clouds, we rolled on, stopping now and then to tweak
our setups.

Riding four abreast, we passed a farm worker walking down the road casually singing a Phil Collins song at the top of his voice. The pastures turned to rugged hills of fynbos. We came upon three springboks that bounded along with us for a few hundred metres.

We made it a rule not to brake on downhills and a game of freewheel racing was born. Making strange noises as we passed each other was optional but encouraged. A high-light was when Jeff swallowed a fly. At one point, we freewheeled for kilometres and only stopped to watch a leopard tortoise cross the road.

We had lunch next to a dam and I thought of an Ernest Hemingway quote: ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are.’

After 60 kilometres, we ended our day at Black Oystercatcher Cottages near Elim, where we sat on the stoep and took our time braaiing. We found complimentary bottles of wine in our rooms and my friends briefly turned on me for making them carry the papsak. I had to remind them of the ethos of bikepacking: ‘Guys, there’s no wrong way to bikepack – don’t hold on to any preconceived notions of how an adventure might turn out.’ Then I took a sip of wine and dodged a chop.

The next day held new challenges, the biggest of which was not bleating like a baby goat when my raw back- side hit the seat for the first time. But, ultimately, it was more of the same – seeking out a quiet route close to nature, where we had space to ride and behave as we wished, on a road we’d never been down.

A quick stop in the mission village of Elim. Image credit: Matthew Sterne

Top tips

• Just make a plan, pick a route, get on your bike and go.

• If you’re a novice, plan a local one-nighter. You learn something from every trip, and even after a short one you’ll discover something you wish you’d done differently.

• Investing in quality gear is always a good idea, but it’s not essential to get you up and running. Start by using what you have and discover what you really need through experience.

• Avoid tar roads and seek out gravel. You won’t have to dodge as many cars.

Image credit: Matthew Sterne

What’s all the fuss?

Following a surge in popularity around the world, bikepacking is beginning to take off in SA. It’s a new way of travelling by bicycle that emphasises exploration and getting off the well-worn roads. As Bikepacking.com explains: ‘It evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, but with the range and thrill of mountain biking. It’s about exploring places less travelled via single-track trails, gravel and abandoned dirt roads, carrying only the essential gear.’

South Africa, with its sprawling web of gravel roads, is the ideal place for bikepacking. In response to the growing interest, PE-based Momsen Bikes has produced two gravel bikes ideal for bikepacking (see page 60). A local father-and-son team has launched a website, Bikepacking.africa, to create a database of free-to-ride routes around the country. Tour companies offering catering experiences are also popping up, while many riders are foregoing the big MTB events for do-it-yourself alternatives.

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