Trail Riding South Africa: The Baviaanskloof Pass
Rudland Rigg might be the UK’s longest green lane at 10 miles long, but don’t tell that to a South African. Lawrence Bransby did and found himself on a 1,100km trek towards and over the Baviaanskloof Pass the next day…
We in the UK are justifiably proud of our green lanes, those innumerable ancient byways preserved from antiquity for people like us to play on. Why, I am told that there are some 5,000 miles of green lanes in England and Wales alone, some going back to Iron and Bronze Age times, ancient routes used by farmers to drive their animals to market or between upland and lowland pasture. The longest green lane is Rudland Rigg, so I’m told, 9.91 miles long, making its way across the North York Moors.
Recently I was in South Africa to visit family. Now, if you do happen to visit that wonderful country, you will soon come to realise that it is unwise to attempt any acts of one-upmanship there – especially not at a braai surrounded by a group of young South African men with beers in one hand and boerewors butties in the other. To do so is likely to invoke the sneer that all South African men are taught from their mother’s knee. Here’s an example: If you happen (unwisely) to suggest that Rassie, as Director of Rugby for the Springboks, looks like a bit of a mampara (a foolish person or an idiot) running on to the pitch in his short shorts in the middle of a match acting like he’s delivering water bottles when, actually, he’s giving tactical information to his players, you’ll smile and think that you’ve scored a point.
Not wise. The South Africans standing around the braai fire look at one another in mock disbelief. One takes a long sluk of Castle lager, turns over a coil of boerewors and pours some beer onto the fire to damp it down. Then he sighs as if weary of dealing with a child, his upper lip curls and he locks his eyes onto yours in the manner of an old Boer sighting along his Mauser onto the red tunic of a British soldier during the Boer War: “Ya-nee, my boet…” (Yes-no, my brother… The nuance of this seemingly contradictory mode of speech is well understood by all South Africans, trust me).
It was at such a braai that I was foolish enough to drop into the conversation that we in the UK have a green lane 10 miles long! (I rounded it up for effect.) As was to be expected, I got the sneer. “Ja-nee, my friend,” one began, “if you want ‘green lanes’, you must go ride in the Eastern Cape – although at this time of the year, it won’t be green!” General guffaws all round because the Eastern Cape has been suffering its worst drought in 100 years. “Ja, here we have brown lanes -” more sniggers because the Castles are taking effect – “‘cause it’s all semi-desert there…”
“You say ten miles, hey?” another chips in. “Ten miles!” More guffaws. “How would you like to ride a hundred miles a day on dirt and all you see is bush and some baboons the whole day?”
To the Eastern Cape
And so it was that I hired a car and drove the 11 hours from Pitermaritzburg to Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape to meet up with Keith James who had a spare DR650 to lend me. Keith looks like a handy person to have at your back when a bar fight kicks off, but beneath the grizzled exterior he’s a retired English teacher, vegetarian, non-swearing/smoking/drinking biker, ex-Apartheid activist who climbs mountains and rides his KLR650 for fun. Partner of an ex-pupil of mine, he’s going to lead me on a 1,100km ride over four days, mostly on dirt, culminating in a crossing of the Baviaanskloof Pass which makes its way through the mountainous Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area of the Eastern Cape.
We check the bikes over and realise we have a small problem: Keith has used one set of plates for both bikes interchangeably for a number of years. Now both bikes will be on the road at the same time. Mmmmm… Keith solves it by removing the plate from his daughter’s scooter and bolting it onto the back of my bike. Sorted. This is Africa.
We travel light: tents and some porridge, tools, spare tubes, droewors (dried sausage) – Keith travels on the minimalist philosophy – packed into small, soft panniers, and set off on a clear day that threatens to turn very hot. But within minutes I realise that the steering head bearings of my DR are shot, the balls nestling in their little worn slots and reluctant to roll. Each small steering adjustment requires a persuasive wrench before the little buggers will move. As a consequence, my bike tends to want to make its own decisions about where we are travelling, something I got used to over the next four days.
Jackal buzzards, horse flies and dust
A few kilometres outside Grahamstown we turn onto dirt and make our way south across a wide plain following a tributary of the Bushman’s River, the land increasingly stark and verging on semi-desert. Euphorbia plants, spiked and fleshy, soften the rocky landscape; families of warthogs rush madly across the road, their tails erect like whip aerials; then a bat-eared fox pauses to look at us quizzically from the roadside before disappearing into the brush. Through Swartwater’s Poort and we follow the Zuurberg Mountain Range that disappears into the haze of distance; bony cows cluster disconsolately around the muddy remains of water at the bottom of dams; the rank smell of a herd of goats.
We stop under the shade of a rail bridge to brew coffee, black and strong. The temperature is now well over 30C. Horse flies investigate, attracted by the smell of sweat, looking for bare flesh. We ride on into the afternoon, over the Zuurberg Pass and through Glencoller with its large, cool, orange groves and canals taking water from the Orange River for irrigation. The road is good dirt, the air coolish so long as we keep moving but pressing hard and breathless onto us when we stop; then west along the base of the Winterhoek Range. A jackal buzzard circles lazily in a sky washed pale by the heat; holding tightly to his scrawny dog who is eager to give chase, a young herd-boy waves a piece of red cloth tied to a stick to warn us of his cattle in the road. Windmills, those with remaining blades, stand silent and still in the heat, their metal stripped of paint by the sun, the water tanks empty and rusting.
The road is dusty and we hit long patches of annoying wash-board punctuated by dips where rivers (if there were any water in them) would flow. Then through the small, dusty town of Adolphskraal where black men stand listlessly on street corners, watching. There is no work here; unemployment in South Africa is amongst the highest in the world.
“Touch and go”
We camp the night in a deep kloof (a steep-sided ravine) of the Great Winterhoek mountains. Ice-cold water from high up trickles into a concrete tank and we strip off our gear and swim naked. Later we sleep under thorn bushes alongside the tank with its trickle of water sweetening the night air.
The next day we load up and head through Grootrivier Poort towards the Antonies Range, the road still good dirt with many dry river crossings. The track at times narrows and seems to lose its way and we have to pause and ask directions of subsistence farmers who scrape a ragged living here with their small flocks of sheep and goats, their clay and corrugated-iron-roofed shacks. They point into the distance and give vague directions in Afrikaans. Fortunately, Keith seems to Know where he’s going (he tells me later that he follows the mountain ranges) and 140ks later we drop down to Potensie and into the south end of the Baviaanskloof. We are told by a farmer along the way that there has been heavy rain up in the mountains and we wonder whether we will be able to cross the Groot Rivier (Big River) to reach the start of the Baviaanskloof Pass. A farmer driving his bakkie with two farm workers and a sheepdog in the back pauses for a roadside chat.
“Do you think we’ll be able to get across the river?” Keith asks, pointing in the direction of the pass. “Touch and go,” the farmer replies in Afrikaans, rocking his hand. “But if you try to cross it, you must keep to the left, hey. There’s a deep hole on the right side by the reeds.”
The track, distressed and rocky now, continues its steep descent through the Grootrivierpoort (Big River crossing or mountain pass) towards the river. I hit a large rock and pinch my tube. We sit in the dirt and the heat and insert our spare. Another farmer, Ramie Deysel, is grading the entrance to his farm with a tractor. We stop and ask him about the river. He shakes his head. “Na hierdie reen in die berge sal dit diep wees. Jy moet die rivier eers deurloop.” (After these rains in the mountains it will be deep. You must walk it first.)
Finally we reach the river, wide and brown with soil carried down with the rains. It looks deep. We strip off our gear and begin to wade across. The bottom is firm but soon the water is up to our crutches and we turn back. Decisions… Should we attempt it? While weighing up the pros and cons, Keith fires up the stove for another cup of coffee.
I think we can do it – remove the seat, block the air intake and exhaust with rags and, together, push the bikes across. The ground is firm and the water would probably be just below the air intake. But Keith is cautious and won’t chance it – not here, so far from anywhere. The bikes are his so I defer to his judgement. We finish our coffee, fire up the bikes and begin the long ride up the pass again and around to the other side of the Baviaanskloof Pass, the temperature hovering in the high 30s. At the small dorp of Steytlerville we pause for a cold Coke then press on.
The road changes from dirt to a narrow, crumbling concrete strip for the next 60ks before we take the track towards the pass. On either side cliffs of yellow and orange rock tower above us as the road makes its way through a narrow poort (a steep, narrow mountain pass). Finally, we arrive at Oasis, a lovely camp site with grass lawns and civilized toilets.
“Looks like rain,” Keith mentions as ominous clouds gather over the mountains. We decide to set up our tents. “I hope we can get through tomorrow,” he adds. “The Baviaan River crosses the track about 30 times before you get out the other side.” We decide to wait and see.
Coffee, plans and flying ants
It’s three in the morning. Outside, thunder echoes through the mountains and the rain pounds on my tent. Of course, it leaks – that goes without saying. My sleeping bag is sodden, the book I was reading before I went to sleep now the thickness of a brick and as heavy. I drag myself out. Keith has also been washed out and is brewing coffee.
“The river will be up,” he warns. “They might close the pass.” He thinks a bit, sipping his coffee in the dark. “But then, maybe they let us through and then the river is too high at the bottom and we can’t get back through the kloof again. Rivers rise quickly here in the mountains…”
We drink more coffee and wait for the dawn. I leave the decision up to him. As the sun rises Hoopoes probe the wet grass with their long, curved beaks, looking for worms. It’s still raining. We wait. Drink more coffee. Keith discusses alternative routes; it’s a monologue because I don’t know the terrain: Plan A… Plan B1 and B2… Plan C. “It’s the confluence of the Kouga and the Baviaan Rivers that’s the problem,” he tells me. “Right at the bottom of the pass. Ja, if they come down together…” There’s another small track over some pass to get around the river – “But it’s slippery when wet,” he adds unnecessarily, looking out at the rain still coming down.
Much later the flying ants come out, their wings catching the light in transparent flutterings. Keith points, smiling: “Flying ants – they know when the rain’s stopping.” “They are clever,” I add but he misses my irony.
But they do know a thing or two, these flying ants, because the rain does indeed stop and we quickly load the bikes and set off along a sodden road towards the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area gates. The guard who opens the barrier warns, “If yous come across any buffalo, keep clear of them, hey. They’s bleddy dangerous.” Evidently a while back a buffalo had gored a biker on the pass who strayed too close.
9.91 to 1,100
To navigate the kloof itself one has to negotiate eight separate passes and poorts. The rain has stopped. The dirt road narrows and becomes a rutted track, steep and rocky in places and often washed out where water has cut through the surface. There are many river crossings although all are fairly shallow and none more than calf deep. As we ride, troupes of baboons rush across the track and disappear into the bush which presses close to the track on both sides. I come across a large male who crouches on his haunches and watches me pass with disturbingly intelligent eyes. He is unafraid and his body language seems to challenge me: “Why you here?”
Up a steep incline and a tree is down across the track. We drag it clear and ride on. Then some very steep sections where narrow concrete strips have been laid to give vehicles traction but they are breaking up now and riding becomes interesting. High up and the land flattens. Suddenly there is a section of that red mud that will have you over before you have time to shout, “Woah!”; my front wheel drops into a narrow gully and I’m down. Keith stops to help me lift the heavy DR and we press on.
Finally the track leaves the bush in the valleys behind and we ride between high cliffs of yellow rock, the road edge dropping away hundreds of feet into mist-veiled bush far below… And the river that had been hanging heavy over us for hours, the “confluence of the Kouga and Baviaan” as Keith had warned? Finally we reach it, wide and muddy but shallow enough to cross without incident and we are through.
Sadly, our trip is almost over. Another long day’s ride getting back to Grahamstown through intermittent rain and dirt tracks as wet and slippery as any I have ridden (and another dropped bike).
One thousand one hundred glorious kilometres of dirt trails. No wonder those guys around the braai fire smiled in a superior manner when I told them of our ten-mile-long (well, 9.91 to be exact) Rudland Rigg green lane in the far-off North York Moors…
About the author
Lawrence Bransby is an exceptionally experienced motorcycle traveller. With five and a half decades of adventure travel, mostly on a bike, often alone. Trans-Africa; four increasingly long trips into Russia including the last, a solo, trans-Russia journey on an old DR350; three journeys into Central Asia; Vietnam, the USA, Canada and Alaska, two journeys into Morocco and Mauritania – a cornucopia of adventure stories and reflections from the long, hard road that have taken him to places most would-be adventurers can only dream of. He’s also authored eight awesome adventure motorcycle travel books.
Here’s a link to all of Lawrence’s books on Amazon.
And you can read more of Lawrence’s articles on Mad or Nomad here:
Try these next…
1 thought on “Trail Riding South Africa: The Baviaanskloof Pass”
An interesting read Lawrence. I don’t think I would like the river crossings with a heavy bike though. I’ve driven my bakkie up Boviaans pass a few years ago, a steep dirt road, nothing like the route you took.