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Text and Pictures: Shaen Adey. Article from the February 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.
Shaen Adey discovers an irresistible combination – cycling the Richtersveld by the light of the fall moon
How lucky could I be? I’d been invited to photograph the week-long mountain bike ride from the Fish River Canyon to Sendelingsdrift in the Richtersveld – a spectacular annual tour in the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park on the border of South Africa and Namibia. Even better, the event is always timed to coincide with the full moon so you beat the daytime heat by cycling at night when temperatures drop. It is simply spectacular.
Largely along gravel roads, the seven-day Desert Knights MTB Tour offers something for everyone, with optional technical sections to really test the mettle of experienced riders. Those of a more leisurely bent can set their own pace, or hitch a lift in the back-up vehicle and simply enjoy the mind-blowing scenery and desert experience.
I was so thrilled to be participating that I ignored the minor details – like the fact that I hadn’t sat on a saddle for a few months and that my bike had no suspension. As a friend once said when I asked if she’d done any training for the Argus, “What? Get a sore rear end before the event and again on the day? No way!” But then she’s not normal.
Fortunately, I could travel up with Songo Fipaza and a few of his young riders. Songo is a community leader in Stellenbosch who, along with world champion mountain biker Christoph Sauser, started a development programme to uplift youngsters in the Kayamandi community through cycling. It was certainly an excited bunch of us that headed for the starting point at Hobas campsite, just beyond the outset of the Fish River Canyon hiking trail.
The six-night tour is timed so that the moon is at its fullest on night three, but bright enough on all the nights to allow you to ride through the silvery landscape without lights. On the first late afternoon, our contingent of 35 cyclists set off from Hobas along a very rocky section of jeep track to the rim of the Fish River Canyon. Not an easy start but the bumps and squeals were soon forgotten as we sipped sundowners at the viewpoint. I’d just returned from a trip to the Grand Canyon and felt even more privileged to be sitting overlooking the Fish, with no rowdy mobs and just the respectful quiet from our group as wc revelled in the magic at dusk. And cycling back to camp on the dirt road, in the ghostly light of the moon, set the tone for an unforgettable week of night riding.
It’s difficult to describe the experience, the surreal swim in the /Ai/Ais hot springs, the moonlight dancing on the walls of the canyon as they narrowed on the long descent into camp. The ruins of a farm were made all the more strange in the moonlight, with a sign in the middle of nowhere saying ‘Dormitory’, another indicating ‘Dispensary’ all of a few feet wide, and finally a tumble-down church with ‘God’s House’ written on the wall. All abandoned and left to the gods.
Some riders took a short cut and missed this weird place, but everyone reached the slightly damp riverbed where the sandy track thankfully firmed up. And, without warning, we rounded a corner straight into one of the best campsites I’ve experienced, in the Gamkab Canyon. The little red tents were dwarfed by the canyon walls, again a magical picture when lit by the moon and the glow of a large fire. In the flames was an old donkey boiler with hot water for showers, although most of the riders aimed straight for Francois’s draft on tap (also dubbed boorgatwater). Later, as the camp fell asleep, jackal calls started echoing up the valley.
But the tour offers many more surprises than splendid night riding in the desert. Marion Siebrits and Maggie Baleta were one of them. “Welcome to the Hakiesdoring farmer’s market,” they said with much laughter, as we emerged for breakfast after our first night. And they were right, presenting us as they did each day with a fabulous selection of fresh veggies and herbs.
Marion and Maggie had volunteered to do the catering and camp management on the tour and were determined to make the experience something that we’d never forget. Each day I looked forward to reaching camp to see what antics they’d got up to. On day one they lit the camp with fairy lights and donned bright orange and green wigs. The messages scrawled on their little blackboard changed daily; ‘duck or grouse’ warned of a nastily protruding branch, ‘slow day’ informed us that a shorter cycling day lay ahead – although we were never quite sure if the message was actually for themselves.
And during the day when the heat was high and our cycles were stashed away there was masses to do. Plant fundi Antjie Burke brought the desert alive as she bounced about with enthusiasm while showing us the plants in the area. The Nama staff at camp treated us to traditional dancing, we visited a landfill the locals had cleaned up, and learnt about their recycling programme at /Ai/Ais.
There was also some spectacular canoeing on the Orange River.
And I got to abandon my old farm gate of a bike and test a top-of-the-range specialised bike with full suspension, thanks to Songo. It was a bit like trading in an old VW for a Ferrari. On the day I tested it the weather turned foul, but I was enjoying the ride on this thoroughbred so much I didn’t care. The wind whistled through my hair on the downs and even along the flats but then suddenly I was faced with a monster of a hill. Too many gears and not enough experience, time to bail, right foot out the cleats, oops too tight… left… equally tight… try right again… panic as my speed dropped to zero and I went over in slow motion landing plum in the mud.
By the end of the week I felt I knew the transfrontier park intimately, and can honestly attribute that to being on two wheels, and being able to really experience the grand splendour of my surroundings as well as all its subtleties. As a fellow cyclist commented.
“The place is bigger than the ride.”
Up to it?
Daily distances vary from 20km to 70km but the tour is aimed at everyone from fit, recreational riders to hard-core dirt-hounds. It’s a demanding ride on gravel roads and jeep tracks and the fitter you are the more fun you’ll have. Bikes can be shuttled if a rider wants a shorter day and sweep vehicles will pick up stragglers.
When to go Desert Knights 2014 takes place from 6-12 September (full moon 9 September)
|More info on the quaint town of Richtersveld||More info on the Namaqualand area|
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