Saturday, 28 February 2015

Only with passports could we have gone further

Heading north from Cape Town into the hinterland on my adventure motorbike for some reason always feels more of an escape from city life than when I’m heading east. East from Cape Town takes one into the delightfully scenic countryside of the Overberg, the Klein Karoo and the Garden Route. However, this is undemanding splendour and magnificence in overdose. It comes easy, almost in your face.
Journeying north is different. It’s like sampling an unknown, yet good wine. One has to explore, discover and savour the flavours and the palate. The beauty of going north lies in discovering the unexpected magnificence of this wide and often harsh, yet striking landscape. 

On the first day of our three day tour, while travelling under a blanket of clouds and in cool weather, the landscape north of Clanwilliam had a special mood to it. The recent winter rains did the countryside good. The veld appeared lush and green. A cotton wool softness covered the surroundings. The cloudy sky made the horizon appear closer than usual.  

Mesmerized by what Mother Nature offered, our group of riders headed further north. Our destination for the day was Onseepkans, a small border crossing village where we needed to have passports if we wanted to go further north into Namibia. But Namibia wasn’t where we wanted to be. We were to explore a chunk of the Northern Cape.

Nature hugged us with its soft, cuddly feeling and slowly the control that computers, traffic and business life had on us, was replaced by a feeling of bliss as we became part of the harmony in the environment.

Until the turnoff just after Bitterfontein. The velvety nature that we've experienced until now, was only the clinic where we cleared our minds from our daily stress. The 260 km stretch ahead through the Knersvlakte to Pofadder was to become the intensive care unit that would get rid of any left-over pressure that could still lurk somewhere deep inside our heads.

The rather rough gravel road to Pofadder wasn't the problem, neither the harsh Knersvlakte that we now started to traverse. It was the straightness of the 260 km of road in this desolate part of the world with nothing in-between – not even a bend – that started to unnerve some of us. The never-ending road stretching from one barren horizon to the next forced our minds into shutdown mode. Time and again we had to take our eyes off the road to refocus on the bikes’ instruments to break the hypnotizing effect of the endless path ahead. We could not afford to lose focus on this rather demanding gravel road. The Knersvlakte remained true to what its name stands for. We were certainly grinding our teeth while traversing this vast plain.

Entering the town of Pofadder on a tarred main street three hours later, was like landing on the cotton wool softness that we could still recall from earlier that morning. The 260 km intensive care treatment that we had just gone through really unclogged our minds. Luckily it did not affect our short-term memories!

We took a 90 km detour to visit Pella, a missionary station with a curiously Arabian atmosphere north-west of Pofadder. It was late afternoon on a public holiday and the area around the historic and beautiful 19th century cathedral was quiet. While we were taking a quiet break, a nun appeared from one of the houses. “Are you OK?” she asked. It could have been her presence, her concern, her clear and energetic voice or a combination of all of this, but a feeling of peace and humble respect for the place that we were visiting suddenly came over us. A strange kind of energy replaced the Knersvlakte tiredness that was within.

We approached our final destination for the day, the low-lying area of Onseepkans on the banks of the Orange River, like an aircraft doing a final approach to a runway. Lower and lower the road took us into a wonderful vista until we stopped at our accommodation for the night.
In the west the sun was starting to set.

The next day an early morning start ensured that we saw nature at its best as we negotiated the rather loose surface of the recently graded gravel road to Kakamas. The rising sun created an unreal orange glow on the low mountains to our left. To the right, long shadows stretched across the veld as if to protect it for as long as possible before the harsh rays of the sunlight would step in for the rest of the day.

Joining the N14 about 60 km further on was a relief. The quiet tar road allowed us to switch to auto-pilot and we could sit back and enjoy the crisp, fresh morning air flowing over us. And for a fleeting moment my mind wandered off to what must have been congested roads somewhere down south where people were on their way to work at that time of the morning.

“Intriguing or spectacular?” These were the words that I was playing around with in my mind while watching the remarkable rock formations and the powerful flow of the Orange River at the Augrabies Falls. In the end it was intriguing that won. There was more to the falls than only being spectacular. There was a certain magic to it.

“How was it possible for water to sculpture hard rock into such fascinating shapes?,” I asked myself while staring at the solid rock formations, the deep ravine and the large volume of water rushing into it. It was as if the tableau in front of me presented only the facade of something more, something deeper and something mysterious behind it. Intriguing, indeed!

Was it the effect that the ride had on me, or the rural landscape that we were traversing, or was it Oma Miemie’s Farmstall in Kenhardt that made me decide to order the out of the ordinary – a scone and a cream soda float – for lunch? While savouring these flavours from my childhood on an overly decorated café stoep, I pictured people somewhere in the city at that moment rushing out from their offices to get some fast food for lunch. However, the tantalizing ice cream and cream soda taste soon made these thoughts disappear.

Verneukpan. My fascination with this flat piece of earth 57 km long and 11 km wide started when, as a child, I first learned about Sir Malcolm Campbells’ attempt to set a world speed record on the pan way back in the 1920’s.

Approaching the pan from the north, an ever-present mirage created a mirror effect stretching from left to right as far as the eye could see. The effect constantly moved on ahead of us as we were traversing the pan.

We had the treat of meeting the owner of the land, the enigmatic Giel Lubbe, on the pan where he was preparing his very basic camp site for visitors to arrive later that day. His stories about the land, the people who visit, land speed attempts, film shoots and speculation about the origin of so-called crop circles on the pan were fascinating.

Even more fascinating was the effect that the pan had on my senses. Distant objects on the verge of the pan seemed to be much further away, yet much bigger and out of proportion at the same time. Moving even slightly closer, changed the perspective and made things look real again.

That night we experienced farm style hospitality in abundance on the farm Benoudsfontein near Williston. Enjoying a traditional home cooked supper with our hosts, Danie and Marie van Wyk, we started to understand what influences the lives of the wonderful folk who live in this part of the world. We learned about the effect (most of it not positive) that the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope project in their district has on them, we shared their concerns about fracking in the Karoo, we listened in awe as they explained their personal involvement in their annual mega church bazaar and we shared with them the love that they have for the land.

Outside, light from more stars that I’ve ever seen before, rained down on us from a clear Karoo sky.

Going back home the next day took us through vast Karoo landscapes, made us admire the stretched out Tankwa Karoo from the Ganaga Pass 700 m above and had us hanging onto our motorcycles as we negotiated a strong cross wind while travelling south on the Ceres-Calvinia road, also known as the Forgotten Highway.  

And as we approached the lush, gentle landscape around Ceres further South, I started to understand why I find it necessary to now and then journey north from Cape Town into the harsh hinterland. This part of the world brings riding adventure of a different kind. It has destinations not to be found elsewhere.

Our three day tour was invigorating and we obtained a new perspective on life while travelling these remote gravel roads. We gained inner peace through the presence of one person when we stopped at a remote missionary station on the banks of the Orange River. We watched with amazement at Augrabies where water from the same river cascaded down into a deep ravine. We felt insignificant, almost lost, while standing in the vastness of a salt pan with seemingly no end. Above all, we were touched by country folk and their love for the land that sustains them and their dedication to God who gives us life.

If we had our passports with us, we could have gone further north and seen much more. We were glad that we didn't. What we've experienced in the Northern Cape was more than what we could have asked for. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Motorcycle trip to Namibia: Day 8 - Going back home

Not yet. Going home was for later today. We first had to see the Fish River Canyon.

This natural wonder is the second largest canyon in the world. The gigantic ravine is about 160 km long, up to 27 km wide and in places almost 550 metres deep.

From Ais-Ais it was a 68 km gravel road ride to the lookout point at Hobas. As it was early morning, the veld had a different and fresher smell to it than yesterday afternoon on the way in to Ais-Ais. Even the colours and textures in nature around me were more vibrant and pronounced.

“Go ahead and show off, Namibia! It is, after all, our last day to experience the wonders that you have to offer!” I shouted inside my crash helmet.

The only sound that one could hear while overlooking the gigantic ravine, was that of cameras clicking. Perhaps it was the magnitude of what we saw that left us speechless. Perhaps it was our inability to find words to describe this vista that made us remain quiet. As if adhering to an unwritten rule, nobody said a word. 

And then it was time to go home. We covered the 200 km to Noordoewer in good time and went smoothly through the border post at around one o’clock the afternoon. From there it was steady and focused riding to try to cover the almost 700 km home before sunset.

Those who know the characteristics of the BMW boxer engine will be familiar with the reassuring and almost hypnotising resonance that comes from these solid engines while cruising at high speed. And with this symphony as background in my ears, I replayed our Namibian experience over the past eight days as we journeyed home. I especially recalled my need for an adventure to clear my head and to find myself again.

But it turned out to be much more than only an adventure. I’ve experienced a pilgrimage which cleansed my mind and soothed my soul. Namibia allowed me to again find my true self, far away from the rushed and everyday world that I’ve left behind at the start of the journey.

Piketberg, Mooreesburg, Malmesbury, Stellenbosch. I was back in familiar territory with towns with soft on the ear sounding names. But it now had a fresh ring to it. I was a new person.

Thank you, Namibia!

Motorcycle trip to Namibia: Day 7 - Good for clocking up kilometres

Change grip, shift body, stand up, sit down, stretch legs, open visor, close visor, look up, look down, try to think of a new song to hum…

Perhaps it was not that bad, but the contrast of the previous days’ exhilarating rides made the B1 tar road and the 656 km that we had to travel from Windhoek to Grünau at 120 km/h feel like cleaning one’s garage – something which has to be done, but, oh, it’s so boring, tedious and mind-numbing.

The light at the end of the tunnel (or should I say the gravel at the end of the tar) was Ais-Ais, our planned destination for the day, 762 km from Windhoek.

Riding the final 70 km to this hot springs spa and resort, I had only one thought in my mind – to relax in the warm indoor spa pool that was waiting for us. As it was towards the end of the Namibian holiday season, accommodation (with breakfast included) was readily available. Unwinding in luxury in the undercover thermal baths soon made us forget about the long ride to this spot of freedom – Ais-Ais, the place with a name which means ‘burning water’.

Motorcycle trip to Namibia: Day 6 - Still no end to Namibia's splendour

Back on the bikes again! We were heading East for Windhoek via the C28. 325 km of gravel road awaited us, first traversing the flat, Northern tip of the Namib-Naukluft Park and then into the Khomas Hochland mountainous region.

“Expect something of the Baviaans Kloof in the Khomas Hochland,” Adriaan said while we were having breakfast at Raith’s Bakery before leaving Swakopmund. Looking at the delightful variety of freshly baked brötchen on display and listening to the German speaking clientele, I had to remind myself that I was in Namibia and not in Bavaria.

We filled up with petrol at the last petrol station before leaving Swakopmund as there would be no facility to refuel before reaching Windhoek, more than 300 km away. 

For the first 100 km I again was overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the desert. Once more, as two days before, I watched in awe as kilometre after kilometre of harsh wasteland rolled by. The only difference today was that I was able to see the horizon. An early start and the cool morning air must have contributed to this.

Like a well-rehearsed changing of the set on the stage between two acts during a play, so unexpectedly and suddenly did the landscape change when we reached the Khomas Hochland. At one moment we were surrounded by desert, only to enter rolling hills and rigid mountains covered with grassland and trees when the curtains lifted for Act 2 of the day’s journey. For the next 200 km we negotiated solid gravel surfaces, alternated by not so solid stretches with even a few unexpected spots of rather deep sand here and there. Having been on unpaved roads for six days now, we took whatever the road offered us in a stride.

One of the highlights of this section of road was the Boshua Pass. “Expect something of the Baviaans Kloof in the Khomas Hochland,” Adriaan said earlier that morning. And so it was, an ongoing winding road through the mountains with tight bends which culminated in a climb so steep, that it was necessary to pave a section of the road to ensure traction and to prevent wheel spin and damage to the road surface.

Reaching the top of the pass took our breath even further away as we observed in wonder the panorama that had unfolded beneath us. Again, Namibia made me feel small.

A stopover at Windhoek would imperfect if it does not include a visit to Joe’s Beer House. That night we feasted on more meat than what I could eat before settling down for a well-deserved rest. Although my body was sleeping, my mind kept on exploring the day’s highlights – Act 1 and Act 2 of the ultimate reality show with a script written and presented by Namibia’s Mother Nature herself! 


Motorcycle trip to Namibia: Day 5 - A Day of Rest

We were staying for two nights at La Sirenetta bed and breakfast in Swakopmund with Laura and Braam as our hosts. 

Actually, they were more than hosts – they were family with Willem and Braam being the long-lost cousins who could not stop reminiscing about the uncles and aunts and about growing up together.

With four days of riding behind us, it really felt as if we arrived home. Although we asked for little, we received hospitality, care and friendship in abundance. Laura and Braam could not stop spoiling us.

Day 5 had been set aside as a rest day. We had a late start and did very little apart from having had our clothes washed and relaxing at a coffee shop or two, enjoying the German culture and atmosphere that Swakopmund is renowned for.

That evening we enjoyed a fish braai with fish that Braam and Willem caught earlier that day. A perfect rest day in Swakopmund ended off by an excellent meal and wonderful company! 

Attracting attention in Swakopmund

Swakopmund sunset

Motorcycle trip to Namiba: Day 4 - Feeling Small

A journey in this part of the world would not be complete without the compulsory stop at Moose McGregor's bakery at Solitaire. 

Solitaire is in the middle of nowhere with nothing more than a filling station, a place to sleep and eat and a landmark selection of old motorcar wrecks at the turnoff. It also has a bakery where the most delightful and freshly baked treats can be bought – apple tart being the signature delicacy. 

However, things will never be the same for the bakery anymore. Moose McGregor passed away earlier this year. At a quiet section of the bakery counter visitors can sign a book and pay tribute to a legend from this part of the world who has made a success of the unthinkable – an internationally known bakery at Solitaire somewhere in the middle of Namibia. 

Still on a good gravel road on the way to Swakopmund , I was expecting to reach the outskirts of the desert not too long after leaving Solitaire. Again Namibia proved me wrong. Between the plains around Solitaire and the start of the desert, we first had to negotiate the Kuiseb Pass on the Eastern entrance to the Namib-Naukluft Park. This unexpected, amazing and winding pass with its sharp corners took us deep down into what felt like the gut of the earth to cross the Kuiseb River at its lowest point. Off-road riding heaven! 

And then the contrast. Rising from what could have been the inners of the earth, we reached flat open plains so wide that it was virtually impossible to identify where land and sky met at a non-existing horizon.

And there was more to come. Riding West on a never-ending and straight gravel road and focusing all the time on the road itself, it was possible to miss the gradual change from flat grasslands to flat nothing. 

And that is exactly what happened to me. At a rest stop, I suddenly realised that my riding has taken me into the desert – to me a very strange and rare desert. No high dunes, but only sand, patches of rock and a flat nothingness for as far as the eye could see. And as the newcomer to this ancient world of barren geographical history, I felt like an intruder who did not belong there. I was the privileged freshman who was allowed to catch a mere glimpse of a vastness and immensity that could not be described in words. And I felt small and insignificant. 

I continued my journey, my eyes constantly sweeping over the unforgiving limitlessness around me. This was the crescendo, the climax of the pilgrimage that I had embarked on. The experience drained me from all pretense that could still have remained inside me. Pretense was not possible when confronted by this desolate natural wonder.

Closer to Walvis Bay, high dunes started to appear. Having been riding for a 100 km in this stark wilderness and more than 200 km since we left Solitaire this morning, the desert and my solitude was now complete.