Tour de Karoo

Posted on 1 October 2021

The Karoo can pass by in an air-conditioned blur by car; endless shrubs and flocks of sheep merging with one another. But to cycle is to get to know the smell of the veld, the rich colours of the earth, the sound of a creaking windmill … and the food!

Words: Lauren Dold | Photos: Lauren Dold & Chris Marais

The Karoo is flat only to those who have travelled on four wheels. On two, it’s a completely different story. (Photo Chris Marais)

This is big sky country,’ my dad pronounced as we skirted the Gariep Dam, heading south towards Steynsburg. Our destination was Mount Melsetter, the Southey family’s farm in the north-eastern Groot Karoo. To be more specific, our destination was the Saddlebum Pub in the main house, where no doubt our friends and fellow cyclists would be waiting.

My family hadn’t visited Mount Melsetter since we were children. This is where, we’ve been told, my twin sister Sam stood up for the first time. (No one really remembers where I stood up, but I’m told it was just a few days later, somewhere unremarkable on our journey home.) It was also where, a few years later, we learnt the artful game of boulle (French bowles) and the proper way to eat a pomegranate. Now, it would be the starting point of our very own ‘Tour de Karoo’, also known as the Fish River Trail.

Mount Melsetter has been in the Southey family since the 1940s but the family has been in the Middelburg area since the 1880s, pioneers in both merino sheep and thoroughbred horse breeding. Once their family home, it is now a guesthouse and home to Great Karoo Cycling, managed by Candy and Mike Ferrar. Green lawns, a swimming pool, clay tennis court, a handful of sheep and a horse paddock make up this sprawling Karoo homestead, which rolls down to the banks of the Great Brak River.

There are around seven million sheep and goats in the Little and Great Karoo. That’s about three times the number of people.

We were halfway through our first round at the Saddlebum when David Southey, our host, tour leader, self-proclaimed quizmaster and old friend, announced we should mount our bicycles and go for a bumble round the farm.

Sheep scattered before our group of 14 riders, most of us just finding our cycling legs after long car journeys. It was only 11km but it was enough for saddle soreness to set in and for me to get a catastrophic puncture, which I hoped was not a sign for the days to come.

My saving grace was an e-bike, rented from Great Karoo Cycling. As the second youngest member of the group, (I’ve got a full two minutes on Sam), I had originally intended to rent a regular bike, determined that I could cycle the 160-odd kilometres over the next four days without any trouble – after all, the rest of the group were between 54 and 72. Between myself and Sam, sporting an injured ankle, we figured we should have at least one e-bike just to be safe. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made.

Along the old Steynsburg road – Teebus (along with Koffiebus) are landmark koppies in the area, named for their resemblance to tea and coffee pots.

We gathered for our first dinner at the grand 14-seater dining room table, groaning with slow-cooked Karoo lamb and venison shanks, mashed potatoes and red wine. Old friends caught up while new friends became acquainted, and I fell asleep to the sound of roaring laughter coming from the dining room down the hall.

Our morning started early, and after coffee and homemade rusks, we packed our bikes on the trailer and set off on our first ride. At the wheel of the support vehicle was Fred Pitout, former Michaelhouse chaplain, who ended up at Mount Melsetter during lockdown and loved it so much he decided to settle.

With Fred behind us, we cycled a gravel road past rusty gates and windmills, with Koffiebus and Teebus, two landmark koppies always in our sight.

Our meandering route along the Great Fish River which gives life to pasture on all the properties near its banks.

It’s a misconception that the Karoo is flat. There were hills everywhere and any notions of e-bike-induced shame were drowned out by the whizz of my accelerator as I passed the group on the ascents. My only competition was my mom, also cruising along on an e-bike, thrilled to be leading the pack.

‘… it is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,’ I thought of Hemingway’s words. Well, the second part of that quote says ‘… since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.’ And sweat we did. By the time we arrived at our breakfast spot, an empty farmhouse just 15km from our starting point, we were spent. The spread, however, did much to lift our spirits as we munched happily on homemade granola, fried eggs, quiche and thick slices of fresh farm bread slathered with jam.

Full and rested, we got on our bikes and after a tough climb, were soon coasting down 13 blissful kilometres of uninterrupted downhill past grazing cows and old farmsteads.

thoroughbred karoo horses were once considered some of the most sought-after breeds. The calcium-rich soil and water of the Karoo is crucial for good bone formation in horses. (Photo Chris Marais)

After our 45km cycle, we headed back to Mount Melsetter, where the afternoon was spent lounging happily on the lawn beneath an enormous American ash, the resident springer spaniels snoozing dutifully at our feet.

‘How many years did the Hundred Year War last?’ Quizmaster David asked the room before dinner that night. ‘And where do Panama hats come from? Similarly obscure questions followed, with few answered correctly and many a scolding issued for stupid answers and speaking out of turn.

Day two, we were warned, would be our longest and warmest day, totalling 60 odd kilometres in 34ºC heat. We set off early, the first 20km flying by with relative ease, stopping to breakfast on the banks of the Teebus River. We passed hectares of pasture, soaked by centre pivots, and bright yellow pomegranates (or Karoo Gold) which only flower in late spring and grow haphazardly in the veld.

E-bikes provide an advantage on the uphills, with a built-in accelerator. Yes please!

The rest of the ride was a slog; hard, hot and windy, helped not at all by the severely corrugated road. With some 13km to go, and with an almost depleted battery, I was finished. Relief came from Fred in the support vehicle, and I waved regally from the back of the bakkie as we passed everyone on the final uphill before coasting down to Lowlands Estate.

Our lovely hosts, Anne and Dave Bowker were waiting for us on the lawn as one by one, we rolled through the gate and up the gravel drive. Lowlands Country House is nestled between pecan orchards and a few centuries-old plein trees. The homely country house sleeps eight, while 4km down the road, Lowlands Manor sleeps 10. The Fish River runs through the property, giving life to the pecan nut orchards and surrounding sheep farms. Greener pastures you will not find.

After hours in the saddle (e-bike or not, there’s no escaping that pain), we sat cooling our feet in the pool, while mouthwatering smells wafted from Anne’s kitchen. Spread under the shade of the verandah, we gratefully tucked into homemade chicken pie and Dave’s freshly baked bread, washed down by more than one ice cold beer. Fatigued and full, we trundled down the road to our home for the next two nights, Lowlands Manor. ‘The house pre-dates the Anglo-Boer War,’ Anne told us, ‘you can hear it in the floors!’ The manor is spacious and comfortable, with walls at least a foot thick, high sash windows and a deep-set verandah overlooking the pool and tennis court.

Guesthouse host Dave Bowker has a never-ending list of Karoo stories which made our rest stops all the more colourful.

Any hopes of an afternoon snooze were dashed by the bleats of a hundred sheep, thundering past the garden wall just as we’d laid down our heads. Pursued by shepherd and sheep dog, the ewes and lambs ran in all directions before finally being patiently coaxed back through the gate, shuffling noisily on to graze in the pastures.

On our third day we cycled less than 30km on the Lowlands Loop, with stops at the pecan packhouse and dairy. Our second night was a chilly one, and after dinner we moved to the cosy lounge where Anne and Dave regaled us with stories of the farm, and of Anne’s family history there. This region between the Fish River and Cradock has been farmed by Collett families, relatives of Anne’s, for generations. Professor Guy Butler wrote about the family in Karoo Morning.

One story involved a great uncle of Anne’s giving away his finest suit to Boer commandos who had come looking for clothes in the middle of the night. He’d have much preferred to part with his regular town clothes but all the week’s wages were contained in his waistcoat pocket!

Beware of the bulls’, we were warned. While other bulls sparred, this gentle fellow watched as 14 bikes sped past nervously.

We left for our final leg to Cradock, heavier than we’d arrived after one too many slices of Anne’s sponge cake with plum jam. We climbed out of Lowlands, heading south-east towards Cradock, taking an alternative route as the strong wind made the regular way along the Fish River unsuitable.

With a maximum temperature of 11ºC and 28km/h winds, with absolutely nowhere to hide and corrugations galore, it was a grind from start to finish.

‘Change gears, put your head down and go,’ my dad said, looking a lot like a tennis ball with legs in his neon yellow jacket, cycling beside me on a particularly unforgiving climb. ‘Hills keep you honest!’ he called as he rode away. All I could think about was my upcoming turn on the e-bike.

A border collie is a valuable member of staff for any Karoo farm.

When our sense of humour was about to fail, Dave Southey shouted out the passing bakkie window that the bus taking us into Cradock was ‘just over the hill.’ This was not entirely true but it gave us the encouragement we needed for that final push.

After five hours and 50km, we finally rolled into Cradock, cold, jelly-legged and thirsty. We were met by Lisa Antrobus from Victoria Manor and Tuishuise, and after a round of hot chocolates spiked with rum, we settled in for lunch in the Albert Dining Room. The remainder of the afternoon was spent huddled at the fire, comparing aches and pains, before we drifted off to our respective Tuishuisies.

Dinner that night was a jovial affair, as Dave Southey toasted (or roasted) each one of us. With old friends like this, the greater the insult, the more love behind it. Special mention was given to the fitter members of our group, who Dave said ‘took off like springhares on a moonlit night!’ The rest of us, I assume, represented the proverbial tortoise. We all in turn raised a glass to Dave, just hours away from his 70th birthday. Our trying morning, corrugations and tired legs long forgotten, we began planning our next Karoo cycling trip.

Windmill or windpump? It’s a fierce debate in the Karoo but technically it’s a water-pumping mill. (Photo Chris Marais)

Five Karoo cycle trails to try

Fish River Trail
160km over four days. This is described in the feature but for serious cyclists, there is also the option to extend the trail by two nights, cycling from Cradock over the Swaershoek Pass towards Somerset East, ending at Glen Avon Guestfarm, 12km out of town.

Mt Melsetter Trail
There are a number of routes, both on the farm and on neighbouring farms and district roads within cycling distance of Mt Melsetter, which vary between 25km and 55km. Combine two or three days of cycling with the other activities in the area, including hiking, horse riding, tennis and river rafting.

The border between the Free State and the Eastern Cape runs through the centre of the Gariep Dam. Tourists and residents flock to the dam each time a drought is broken and the water gushes over the wall. (Photo Chris Marais)

Sneeuberg Trail
160km over five days
This five-day trail starts at Mt Melsetter and ends in Graaff-Reinet, either via the eastern side of the Compassberg via Nieu Bethesda, or the western route via The Poplars. Stops and activities along the way include river rafting on the Brak River, lunch at the Lamb Chop restaurant, a visit to the Owl House and overnight stops (depending on budgets) at Gordonville guesthouse, Ganora Guest Farm, Weltevreden Guest Lodge and the five-star Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet.

Gariep Trail
140km over three days or 180km/four days
The Gariep Trail from Colesburg towards the Gariep Dam traverses three provinces: the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Free State, through the Oviston and Gariep reserves and on to a choice of destinations. Stops and optional activities include river rafting and fly fishing in the Orange River, historical tour of the concentration camp outside Norvalspont, a guided tour inside the Gariep Dam wall and sunset cruises on the dam. Overnight stops 
include The Lighthouse Guesthouse (starting point in Colesburg), Karoo Nights guesthouse, Morning Glory Cottages and Waschbank River Lodge on the Orange River.

Dave and Anne’s verandah at Lowlands was a sight for sore thighs after a hot day in the saddle.

Oorlogspoort Trail
130km, two to three days This trail starts at the Gariep Dam and continues south on the old Colesberg road via Oorlogspoort and Macasserfontein ending at Mt Melsetter.

All trails make liberal use of trailing vehicles to uplift cyclists if the journey proves too long.

Trip Planner

Getting There

Mount Melsetter is 730km from Joburg on the N1 via Bloemfontein and the Gariep Dam, then onto Steynsburg, the closest town to the farm. From Cape Town it’s 820km on the N1 to Beaufort West, then on the R61 to Aberdeen, then on the N9 through Graaff-Reinet and a short stint on the R56.

Do This

Great Karoo Cycling offers five trails, varying in length, duration and difficulty. Autumn trails start in mid-March and run until early June. Spring trails resume in mid-September until the first week in December. Book well in advance to ensure availability. Generally trails begin on a Thursday, ending on the Monday or Tuesday, but the operator can tailor trails to suit specific requirements. The ideal number of cyclists is 8–12, up to a maximum of 14.

Cost (for the Fish River Trail) is R9 000 pp sharing including all accommodation and meals (drinks are extra). Family groups of four or more, R8 000 pp. Alcoholic drinks are available from honesty bars at the various accommodation spots.

Bike rental
Great Karoo Cycling has six 29-inch mountain bikes for R250/day, and six e-bikes at R300/day. 011 489 5411

Stay Here

Victoria Manor and Tuishuise

Each Tuishuis is decorated in its own distinct theme or period, down to the art prints and furniture.Getaway readers can claim a special weekend rate of R550 pp sharing B&B, R750 per person single (excluding peak season) 048 881 1650

Lowlands Estate

An ideal family retreat with cycling, rafting and other activities available. The two houses combined can sleep up to 22 people. From R3 200 for the house (sleeps 10) 071 393 3354

Mount Melsetter

This old farmstead has been in the Southey family for decades. Enjoy the newly added private cottages in the front garden. From R700 pp sharing B&B, plus R220 for dinner. 083 303 7625

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