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Text: Fiona McIntosh. Pictures: Fiona McIntosh and Shaen Adey. Article from the June 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.
Let your bicycle become a time machine on a two-and-a-half day trip up the spectacular West Coast
The last glaciers receded nearly 500 million years ago; five million years ago the last short-necked giraffe perished in the Berg River; 100 000 years ago our own species made an appearance; 5 000 years ago hunters painted rock shelters; 1 500 years ago pastoralists roamed the Saldanha coastal plains, then came the settlers and missionaries some 200-300 years ago. Today traces of this heritage remain in the landscape and people of the West Coast.
“Before you get back on your bikes scan the side of the road,” suggested Morgan Sambaba, our guide. We squatted down not quite sure what we were trying to observe, but all became clear as he picked up the shell of a tiny tortoise. “The crows pick the babies up then drop them onto the hard calcrete road, much like gulls drop mussels onto the hard sand,” he explained. Sure enough, the verge was littered with carapaces. The scavengers had clearly had a feast.
We were on day two of the Wheels of Time mountain bike tour, a leisurely two-and-a-half day journey up the Cape West Coast. The day had started with a transfer to the top of the lofty granite dome of Seeberg where we took in the view across the magnificent turquoise Langebaan Lagoon to Kraalbaai and Postberg as breakfast was served. Freshly made ginger-flavoured juices and fruit salads were followed by a hearty cooked meal – and after the seafood potjie, fresh bread and other spoils of the night before we were worried that despite cycling around 40km a day we were going to put on weight on this tour!
Not that day two was intended to be overly strenuous – we’d done the hard work on day one, cycling across the historic farmsteads that separate the mission town of Mamre, where the tour began, and the eclectic town of Darling, home to artists, olives, flowers and, of course, wine. The route took us past one of the best estates in the region, Groote Post, where, despite the early hour, we allowed our arms to be twisted and spent a relaxed hour or so enjoying a tasting before continuing to our comfortable guest house. After settling in and patting ourselves on the back for surviving some tricky riding through soft sand and up rough gravel roads, there was time to explore the town before the moment most of us had been waiting for – dinner and a show at the famous Evita’s Peron.
Riding the back roads had given me a new insight into an area I thought I knew well. Despite living in the Cape for the last decade, I’d never been to Mamre, an oversight as it’s a fascinating little place and the site of the second oldest Moravian missionary settlement in South Africa, after Genadendal. Morgan hailed from the village, so before we hopped on our bikes he took us on a tour pointing out the 18th-century parsonage, the church and the organ, the oldest still-functioning organ of its kind in the country. In 1702 the Governor of the Cape, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, established a military and cattle post in the area to protect the European Settlers’ cattle from theft by the Khoi people. In 1808 the region was transferred to two Moravian missionaries and a thriving mission station was established. The old buildings have been restored and were declared national monuments in 1967.
It was a fitting start to this historical tour through the Cape West Coast Biosphere reserve, a place rich in fossils, most famously ‘Eve’s footprints’ at Kraalbaai. The fossilised prints are believed to be those of a woman, dubbed ‘Eve’, who trod these dunes approximately 117 000 years ago – around the time of the emergence of homo sapiens.
The night before we had been brought up to speed with the significance of this find. Apparently current theory suggests that all modern humans are descended from one common female ancestor, known as ‘Genetic Eve’. Experts say that although they cannot say that the footprints at Kraalbaai are hers (in fact, the chances of that are incalculably small), they were made at the right time and place to fit her profile.
It was to the information centre at Geelbek, home to a replica of the footprints (the originals are now housed in the Iziko SA Museum in Cape Town), that we were headed. But we were on Eve’s time now, governed by sun and stars, so we were in no rush. After cruising down from Seeberg we checked out the waders at the Seeberg bird hide, then stopped again for a dip in Langebaan Lagoon before pottering on to the grand homestead at Geelbek, where lunch was laid out in the shade of the trees.
After lunch it was back on the main park road – an undulating stretch that afforded incredible views over the inland dunes as well as sightings of eland, ostrich, snakes and a few – this time live – tortoises before we exited the park via the normally off limits south gate onto a continuation of the calcrete road that we had followed through the park that led to our overnight spot at Yzerfontein.
After breakfast the next morning we embarked on the final leg of our journey, initially following a gravel track that ran parallel to the beach to Tygerfontein Farm. From the homestead the track took us inland through some pristine strandveld, then across the R27 and up a short, steep hill to !Khwa ttu San Cultural Centre, where we surrendered our loaned bicycles. After lunch we had time for a quick tour of the centre, which included an entertaining visit to a reconstruction of a traditional village where the guides demonstrated how to make fire and brought out a ‘love bow’. Apparently in traditional societies the men would hide as the women went out to collect water and if a man fancied one of the girls he would sneak up and shoot a miniature arrow at her buttocks or leg, which she could then take back to the village in order to identify her would-be suitor!
Then it was all aboard the support vehicle for the drive back to Mamre and our 21st-century vehicles – the end of our journey through time.
Up to it? The tour is aimed at recreational cyclists who are keen to experience the back roads and beauty of the West Coast from the seat of a bicycle. Wheels of Time is made up of three legs connected through a series of heritage experiences and short transfers and can be customised to the needs and interests of individual groups. Most of the riding is along quiet gravel roads and tracks through undulating hills, with the occasional steep climb or stretch of sand which you may end up walking. A support vehicle, carrying luggage and providing food and refreshments along the route, is always in attendance, so you can hop aboard anytime if you feel like taking it easy.
If you don’t own a bike, don’t worry. They’re provided as part of the package.
When to go: The trail is offered year round, with set date departures coinciding with the Cape Argus Pick ´n Pay Cycle Tour, but March/April or October/November are probably the best months. Summers are hot and windy, but nice for swimming, and have that carefree holiday feeling. Winters are cold and a bit rainy, but red wine and fires provide for a cosy experience. The landscape is most beautiful in winter, and the West Coast is renowned for its spring flowers.
Bookings: Cape West Coast Biosphere Trails,
086 187 2457 or 022 451 2648,
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