Thu Jan 25 2018: The Road to Hel is Unpaved, With Good Indentations
Peering outside our tent, we've awakened to a brilliant, clear morning! Our campground is right in the town of Prince Albert, which itself is situated in the southern part of the Great Karoo desert. Although the air is still quite cool from the night before, the temperatures are forecasted to soar to the high 30s in the mid-afternoon. We scarf down a quick breakfast while tearing down camp. We'll want to get most of our riding for the day done before it gets too hot.
There's a single road, R407, running through town, and we ride south towards the Swartberg Mountains.
As we approach the mountains, the turnoff to the pass turns to gravel. Time to air down the rubber
While Neda is deflating our tires, I keep a lookout for uh... nothing. I just watch her work and take pictures. Cuz that's my thing...
The Swartberg Pass is a well-graded gravel road that winds up and over the Swartberg Mountains. The views are spectacular as we try to negotiate the twisty road, while at the same time greedily gulping in the canyon walls surrounding us as we ride through the narrow gorge. And then stealing glances over the edge when the road rises up and over the valley, which gets further and smaller beneath us.
Normally we ride pretty slow, but we seem to be stopping every 200m to take in the view and to snap countless pictures
A couple of dik-diks look on with amusement at these two camera-happy moto-tourists
We wave to a cyclist that's been leapfrogging our progress on the pass. Every time we stop to ooh and ahh and take pictures he catches up.
He's passed us like 5 or 6 times already on this road!
The climb up the mountain pass is quite steep, I can see why cyclists like this route. It's a great leg workout!
Look at me, talking about exercise like I'm an expert! Leg day for me means having to stand up on the pegs and panic-stomping on the rear brake.
Sometimes it's nice to stop, turn around, and look at the road you've taken and marvel at just how far you've come
I may or may not be talking about the Swartberg Pass.
At another scenic lookout on the Pass, we ask some other tourists there to take our picture
The Swartberg Pass is quite short, only about 25 kms from start-to-finish. But half-way through, there is a turn-off that leads further into the Swartberg Mountains, as opposed to just up and over it. This is the road that our hard-core KTM friends, Jacques and Phillip, told us to take:
We laugh in the face of danger! A nervous, high-pitched kind of laugh... the kind of laugh that sounds like a goat inhaled a helium balloon...
What have Jacques and Phillip gotten us into?
This road will take us through the Gamkaskloof, a very narrow and isolated valley in the Swartberg Mountains. Gamkaskloof is not pronounced at all like it's written. When we were planning our routes in Port Elizabeth a couple of days ago, I asked Jacques: "Gam-Kass-Kloof?" He shook his head, "No", then corrected me with something that sounded like "Chummkisskleuf" with the "Ch" like the Hebrew, "L'Chaim!"
The gravel road through Hummus-Kloof is not as well-graded as Swartberg Pass
Large, loose stones kick out from beneath our wheels and at many points, pot-holes, ruts and corrugations move our motorcycles in strange and not entirely pleasant ways.
Whenever we tackle rough roads, we turn off our communicators, because we're always yelling "OSHIT!" in each other's ears.
Actually, it's only Neda that yells "OSHIT!". I just shriek like a little girl.
So turning the communicators off for me is a desperate attempt to preserve my carefully cultivated veneer of bravado, fearlessness and fragile masculinity...
But pushing through such variable terrain rewards us with magnificent views of the mountains rising up on both sides of us
Although it's not even the hottest part of the afternoon, the sun is pounding down on us mercilessly and we need to pull over for a water break.
Neda tries to seek out shade near a pond that we stopped beside - a difficult thing to do when the sun is directly overhead
Back on the bikes, the onboard thermometer reads 33°C. And it's only going to get hotter as we continue riding!
BTW, Swartberg means "Black Mountains" in Afrikaans:
The road goes down
The road climbs up
The road goes left, then right, then left and then right once again
And all around us, mountains, mountains, mountains! Spectacular! We are loving it!
Despite the heat, this is a very good riding day.
Even in these semi-desert conditions, there are still pools of water covering the road. We stop to measure the depth before charging through
And that's when we discover that our boots are no longer waterproof. At least our socks dry fast in this heat.
It's been so long that we've ridden in the rain that we hadn't realized our boots are leaky. So every water-crossing, I lift my feet in the air, looking thoroughly uncool, but staying dry in the process.
Rounding the bend, past some very interesting rock formations
So it's been over a month since I got the F700GS. Am I getting along any better with my new bike now?
No, I am not.
In addition to the disappointing steering which I haven't stopped complaining about, this bumpy road is revealing further weaknesses in its street-biased suspension. I don't think it's the suspension travel, more to do with the rebound damping. There's too much bouncing on the loose stuff, the tires don't seem to be contacting the ground often enough to feel like I have grip and control.
My F700GS is equipped with a factory option called ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment). Unlike the newer R1200GS I rode at the BMW Enduropark Course in Germany, which had settings for Rain/Road/Dynamic/Enduro (that worked wonderfully BTW), this version of ESA on the F700GS only has three settings: Normal/Sport/Comfort.
I took this opportunity to play around with each setting. Obviously "Sport" mode was the worse. Way too stiff. It exacerbated the bouncing and made riding the loose stuff very pucker-inducing.
So I thought "Comfort" mode would be the best setting, and it was marginally better. And then, out of curiousity, I switched to "Normal". I was very surprised that I couldn't tell any difference between that and Comfort. They seemed exactly the same.
I spent a long time on that bumpy road toggling between "Comfort" and "Normal" suspension and I've come to the conclusion that this bike only has two suspension modes: ""NormalComfort" and "Sport". Two suspension modes for off-road: "Bad" and "Worse"...
I wish I had gotten a R1200GS. :(
I love looking out and seeing that twisty ribbon of dirt and gravel ahead of us!
Passing by a mini-forest of some neat-looking aloe trees. Aloe! It's Vera nice to meet you!
There are a few switchbacks on the descent to Hell
From the top of the road to the floor of the valley, the road rapidly sheds 600 meters of vertical elevation. Our tires skid on the loose rocks as we slow down for each hairpin using a combination of engine-braking and rear brakes (Leg day again?)
Hey! We made it! In one piece, too!
There's a campsite in Die Hel where we fill up our nearly empty water bottles. Further down the road, there is an abandoned village with derelict buildings that a lot of people visit.
The history of this place is fascinating. This valley was first populated in 1830 by a handful of settlers. There wasn't a road back then, so they had to negotiate a precariously narrow path through the valley by donkey. The population only grew to about 160 people at its peak. The Gamkaskloofers were isolated from the rest of the country and the world, and they preferred it that way. Not many people left the village and almost nobody from the outside visited them.
Generations of subsistence farmers were born, lived their entire lives and died having never left the valley. Two world wars passed. Apartheid rose up and was torn down. The Gamkaskloof Valley was untouched by all of it.
In the 1960s the villagers finally asked the government for a road to be built to the outside world. They wanted access to medicine and education for their kids.
When the road was finally completed, it kicked off a steady migration out of the valley. By 1991, the Gamkaskloof was empty.
The name Die Hel was given to this village by a livestock inspector who used to visit the valley in the 1940s to check up on the animals. He called the 40-km trek into the village "die Hel". The nickname stuck. The villagers hated it...
We had to get out of the sun, it was too hot. The bikes join us in the shade
There's only one way in and out of Die Hel. Which means to continue on, we have to back track another 50 kms back to the Swartberg Pass.
We steeled ourselves for the return trip. Then rode out through the stone gates and up, up and away from the valley floor.
Away from Die Hel.
This R1200GS ADV had been tailing us since we left Die Hel. A few kms later, he finally pulled alongside with Neda
I heard the conversation Neda was having with him over the communicator:
"Are you guys alright?", he asked.
"Good, I was a bit concerned because you guys are going so slow."
I guess he got tired of following at such a slow pace behind us, because he passed us and zoomed on ahead. So we set off again, this time without our tailgunner. However, I noticed that R12GSADVguy was not straying very far ahead of us. Instead, his brake lights would illuminate and turn off constantly, like a distant lighthouse beacon. Always within visual contact.
Ah. He was still looking out for us, but this time from his rear view mirror. Our rearguard had turned into a vanguard! Aw, that's so nice! Or embarrassing. Maybe a bit of both...
And then up ahead, the R120GSADVguy was at a standstill. As I got closer, I saw the reason.
A dik-dik is just hanging out on the road between us. So cute!!!
This little guy didn't seem fazed at all with a whole BMW Motorrad Convention surrounding him. He studied all three of us for awhile and then hopped up onto the ledge beside the road...
...where he joined his little buddy. They are so well-camouflaged against the orangish-brown rocks!
Hard to keep your eyes on the road when there are views like this all around and below you! We were just down there!
Amazing! We are having such a great time on this road! Have to thank Jacques and Phillip for the recommendation
We reach the intersection that connects back to the Swartberg Pass and the gravel road becomes tamer and civilized once again
Back on the Swartberg Pass, who do we find waiting for us? The R12GSADVguy!
He must have been waiting for a very long time! :)
He introduced himself as Andreas (I think that's what he said, sorry if I got your name wrong) and he was a local guy from Johannesburg, out touring the area for a few days. We chatted for a while and he shared some more good routes with us, which Jacques and Phillip already recommended. So now we have further confirmation! I'm so glad we took the time to backtrack half-way across the country to try out roads that we missed the first time round.
Andreas was such a super-nice guy, taking care of us out-of-towners and making sure we were alright before he continued on his way. He gave a friendly honk and waved goodbye as he rode away from us.
And he was probably laughing to himself at how chicken we were on the trail! :)
After Andreas left, I opened my topcase to get a water bottle out. To my dismay, the plastic bottle had ruptured while we were riding and 2L of water now filled the inside of the case. I inspected the bottle. All that rubbing against the bare metal case on the bumpy road had worn a hole in the plastic.
Crap. How long did I ride with all this water sloshing around in there? Probably since leaving Die Hel!
Oh no! All my electronic devices were in my topcase! I immediately check the cameras, they were okay because they were in separate cases. Immense relief!!! The only casualty - my cellphone.
Dammit!!! Relief turns to anger once again.
I loved that phone. Not because it was fancy and expensive, but because it was exactly the opposite. I picked it up for only $150 in Thailand and it was so cheap and perfect and did everything I wanted it to. I was very proud that I spent so little on it.
And now I'll be forced to replace it in South Africa where anything electronic costs an arm and a leg (day). Argh! :(
I (literally) fished everything out of the topcase and draped it all over the bike, as if I was decorating a Christmas tree. Except I was not feeling very jolly and festive at all. The hot sun will dry it all out. It shouldn't take very long.
I don't think the sun will fix my drowned phone though.
While we were waiting, another R1200GS Adventure pulled up beside us. It had German plates and the rider flipped up his modular helmet to talk with us. He had shipped his motorcycle from overseas and he was inquiring about the condition of the Gamkaskloof. We explained: a lot of loose rock (I made a circle with my thumb and index finger), some mud, a few water crossings, nothing too gnarly.
He looked doubtful and shook his helmet, "No, it sounds like too much for my R1200GS Adventure. It is much larger and heavier than your bikes."
Ok. We didn't mention that Andreas, who just left, was on the exact same motorcycle...
And with that, the German rider politely dankeschöned us, flipped down his lid and continued back down the Swartberg Pass.
Now it was our turn to laugh at how chicken the German guy was! LOL! :D
That afternoon, we decided to treat ourselves after sucessfully tackling such challenging terrain!
Oudtshoorn is less than an hour south of the Swartberg Pass. Just outside town, we had passed by some ostrich farms. I remembered seeing them the first time we rode through last week. From the all signs posted on the side of the road, we found out that ostrich racing is a thing here. You could pay a small fee and ride an ostrich on one of these farms.
When we saw that, Neda exclaimed, "Nooo! That sounds like such a cruel thing to do to an ostrich!!!"