Words & Images by: Seamus Allardice
The first week in January is for bikepacking trips. Well, bike-slackpacking trips. Who wants to carry their gear on a bike when a bakkie could do all the heavy lifting?
In 2018 we rode from Stellenbosch to Opsoek. In 2020 we did a loop of the Overberg. 2021 was the year of climbing Gysmanshoek Pass. Then, we rode to Die Hel and back in 2022. This year, after suffering in the searing heat of Gamkaskloof we stuck to the coast. Though of course that meant South Easters rather than blazing sunshine…
Starting at the Birkenhead Brewery, in Stanford, we cut through Papiesvlei, skirted Baardskeerdersbos and followed a low ridgeline in an easterly direction towards Wolvengat before heading south to the sea, where we wild camped on the beach. The first day took in 70 kilometres with just under 1 000 metres of climbing. Day two saw us riding north towards Elim before turning into the teeth of a rising South Easter. Only hiding behind the support vehicles helped us make descent time and arrive in Struisbaai for lunch before pushing on to L’Agulhas, 70 kilometres from where we started that morning. The third and final day was play day, largely because we were racing downwind, back to Stanford. 95 kilometres flew by in no time; after a stop at the Southernmost Point and a stretch on the hardpacked beach to Brandfontein, we headed inland through Elim and Papiesvlei back to Birkenhead.
Coming up with a route which showcased the great gravel riding of the Standveld (see Yeti Grave Raid and Stanford 100 Miler) without doubling up on itself too much was tricky. Especially because my main aim was to camp on the beach for at least one night. The squashed figure of eight loop I eventually devised ended up only backtracking on itself in the final 30 kilometres so that was a win.
As was the first night’s campsite!
Vic came to my rescue though, providing a couple of mini-Bar•Ones to pick me up out of my slump. At our roadside lunch stop, in Wolvengat, he upped the ante; cracking open beers. A sluggish hour and a bit of riding later we reached the ocean and our campsite for the night. While we set up camp and lit a fire Vic went about setting up his camp shower.
Ren had been none-too-happy about the prospect of a sea swim too clean off the day’s dirt. So, she seized upon the surprise of a hot shower eagerly. The rest of us made do with the freezing but cleansing waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That was part of the fun after all.
Camping on the beach is always a treat. And one that too few people get to experience. Yes, everything gets sandy and your tent’s flysheet flaps all night because you can’t peg it down properly. But that’s part of the charm.
As is waking up to a deserted stretch of beach. With not a single footprint on it. Making coffee on a gas stove while looking out across the waves. And then getting ready for another day on the bike.
It had drizzled overnight and that morning we chased the rainclouds north. Later we heard that Bredasdorp (the best town in the Overberg, regardless of what Caledon local Marguerite van Niekerk says) had 30 millimetres of rain that morning. Though the roads were muddy and wet, we avoided the downpour.
What we didn’t avoid was the wind. While riding north we could all feel the nagging cross wind tugging at us. Which was fine. But when we turned towards Struisbaai the nagging became a full scold. As our pace slowed and we found it harder and harder to hide from the wind, behind Nick Webb, we decided on a new plan.
Dividing into five rider groups we clustered in behind the two support vehicles. Or at least most of us did. Nick and Tim were too proud to declare in their tussle with the wind. They sat out front, setting the tempo. Which was actually perfect as the cars could then match their pace and not blow us out of the shelter behind them.
This tactic got us to Struisbaai, our senses of humour intact, for lunch at the harbour before rolling round to one of the municipal campsites in L’Agulhas for the night.
After a night in a grassy campsite, with proper ablutions, the mood was chirpy for the final day. We eased out of Agulhas along the coastal road to Suidestrand and stopped for a mandatory photo at the Southernmost Tip of Africa. Contrary to what Capetonians believe, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans actually meet there.
The next 20 kilometres were the highlight of the trip. We followed a sandy, but mercifully not soft, jeep track through the Agulhas National Park to the cottage where Harold Macmillan wrote the Winds of Change speech. While Magan Hanekom was regaling us with the history of the area, as gleaned from Dalene Matthee’s Die Uitgespoeldes, we rode along the beach. With the tide at full low, the beach pan-flat and the wind behind us the riding was glorious!
At Brandfontein we re-joined the support vehicles and had a quick snack stop. From there it was gravel and a touch of tar all the way back to Birkenhead. We stopped in Elim, of course, and regrouped a couple of times too. The last time picking up a fellow traveller, who was riding from Struisbaai back to Hermanus at the end of her holiday.
Beers and lunch were the penultimate features of the trip. Before Ren hauled out the panettone. In 2022 we lugged an increasingly crushed panettone through Die Hel. It started every morning precariously perched atop a mountain of bags in the bakkie, but every day fell lower and lower as people pulled things they needed out.
This year, with two vehicles in support the panettone maintained its lofty position in the packing order. Uncrushed it tasted just as good. But looked a bit more appetising. There’s no lesson in that. Though you could probably devise one quite easily. Something about having your cake and eating it, probably. Which is pretty much bike-slackpacking in a nutshell.