The Karoo and mountain biking is a match made in heaven, and none more so than on those truly extra-terrestrial plains surrounding Calvinia. Endless roads, farm tracks and trippy footpaths mean you have proper exploration riding to look forward to …
– Copy and images : Jacques Marais
Calvinism used to be a big thing here, boet! Yup, the name Calvinia can be traced all the way back to that super-staunch reformer, John Calvin, who had a profound influence on the Dutch Reformed religion in South Africa. So yes, expect a lofty church spire and an annual ‘Kerk Basaar’, but don’t let that make you think this is a dorp of all-pray and no-play, my friend.
The history of this Karoo dorp dates back to the 1850s and since then, its development was very much dependent upon the local agricultural industry. Calvinia remains one of the Northern Cape’s key regional growth points and lies at the centre of one of South Africa’s main mutton- and wool-producing areas. Which means the lamb chops here are the best you’ll get in all of Msanzi!
Located within the high-lying water catchment of the Oorlogskloof River, the town is surrounded by the flat-topped, dolerite mountains so typical of the scenic Hantam region. (The word ‘Hantam’ comes from the Khoi language, and can be translated as ‘where the red bulbs grow’, in reference to the abundance of red sage on the plains).
It is therefore no wonder botanists, horticulturalists and plant lovers flock here from across the globe, especially during the spectacular spring wildflower bloom characterising the arid centre of SA. Literally millions of flowers burst forth from every nook and cranny to spread for hundreds of kilometres on end, with the display usually peaking between mid-August and early September. Botterboom, kersbas and the endangered sterboom are just some of the rarities found here.
Earthly floral displays are mimicked by the night skies above, with the ‘billion-star experience’ of the celestial firmament drawing astronomy enthusiasts and astrophotographers in their thousands. ‘Fix’ may just be the operative word, too, should you dare to attend the Afrika Burn Festival, a cult celebration based on the internationally acclaimed Burning Man.
If you could rewind time 250 million years on these plains, you would be surrounded by prehistoric dinosaurs upon what was once a vast inland seabed. Fossils, Khoi rock art and petroglyphs abound amidst an abundance or herbaceous Karroid botanical species, and untold riches when it comes to birds, reptiles and mammals.
Legendary tales of Noord-Kaap hospitality are a dime a dozen, and the full gamut of destinations here upon the edge of the high Hantam mesa will not disappoint. Get ready to tuck into a ‘smiley’ (or a traditional sheep’s head, baked in a clay oven); visit Loeriesfontein windmill museum down the road, or take in a Karoo sunset. And make sure to check out www.handvolgruis.co.za for the MOST amazing mountain escapes in all of the Hantam Karoo!
On the bike
Get ready to discover two stunning farm-stays in Handvol Gruis and Hantamland. These gems are situated on one of the oldest registered farms in the Calvinia region, and the landscape is utterly unparalleled. You need to navigate approximately 15km of gravel road to get there, but you will feel as if you’ve utterly escaped the rat race …
Handvol Gruis is situated in the low-lying valley, but with a tranquil poplar forest and several large farm dams nearby. The arid plains make for easy cruising on a Fat Bike or MTB, with around 14km of flat gravel roads and jeep-track to explore. Most of the riding is on good gravel, but there will be sand drifts here and there, so stay sharp.
Saddle up from your back door and pedal in a generally northerly direction to the largest of the earthen dams. The shale dongas below the dam outlet make for a technical MTB play park of epic proportions, with gravelly drop-offs, chutes, gullies and jumps to keep you busy for hours. There’s no specific route, but the whole plain is the perfect outdoor arena to go wild in.
The real deal awaits when you tackle the gravel pass onto the escarpment, where you’re about to get high on a parallel reality. Johan and Ronelle Nel built there second guest cottage on this high-lying plain, with scree-studded cliffs reaching right up to the very underbelly of the clouds.
On any given day at ‘Hantamland Cottage’, the aroma of succulent-Karoo vegetation will make you stop in your tracks and breathe in the intoxicating scent of this wonderland. Harpuis, koperdraad, suurpol, wild rosemary, pelargonium and hundreds of herbaceous plant species flourish here, and it is as if you’re riding through the heather-covered hills of distant Scotland.
The ascent from the plains makes for a solid 4km climb onto the verdant Karoo mesa, with endless roads, tracks and game paths to explore on your bike. This is exceptional trail running terrain, too, but you need to stick to the tracks, as the tufty sour grass veld makes for tough conditions underfoot.
Explore their new hiking trail onto the western cliffs for unparalleled sunset views, or meander to the high-lying water pans to the south of the access road. All in all, you’ve got a 30-40km route to explore if you combine the valley and the escarpment. None of the trails are currently marked, but watch this space …
Off the bike
Bucket pumps and flour mills
An old synagogue serves as the Calvinia Museum, and here you will find everything from farming implements, blacksmith tools and candle-making utensils to a full range of other oddities. There’s the black wedding dress, a four-legged ostrich, Lombard Quadruplet memorabilia … best you go and see for yourself – www.calvinia.co.za
‘Rural cuisine’ is often considered a mutually exclusive term, but Hantam Huis Restaurant rates as one of those rare, small-town culinary gems. This licensed establishment will delight you with everything from traditional fare such as bobotie to dumplings and a full range of other delicacies. The building dates back to 1854 and has been declared a national monument – www.calvinia.co.za
Many other architectural gems can be found in Calvinia, including the neo-gothic Dutch Reformed church and a number of early Victorian townhouses dating back to 1850. A night in one of these will time-line you straight back to your gran’s ‘voorkamer’ …
Tankwa-Karoo National Park
The extreme remoteness of the 80 000ha Tankwa Karoo National Park won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the diverse succulent-Karoo biome, supreme sunsets and a minimalist landscape are utterly mind-expanding – www.sanparks.org
Hantam Vleis Fees
Calvinia is sheep country, and this festival celebrates meat. There’s meat braaied, stewed, curried, in pita, on sosaties, in potjies – you can even pick up a done-to-perfection sheep’s head! First held in 1989, the three-day Hantam Vleisfees has a music concert, street party, vintage car rally and, a highlight for many, the Miss Vleisfees competition – a glittering affair with dinner and dancing – www.facebook.com/HantamVleisfees/
Best time of year
Sizzling summers, but it sure gets frosty when winter arrives … if you’re lucky, you may even get to experience snow on top of the mountain while basking in the glorious Kol-Kol wood-fired hot tub installed on the Hantamland stoep!
HOW TO STAY WARM ON THE BIKE: The key to maintaining body heat when riding in sub-zero winter weather (yup, it snows here in the Hantam mountains!) is to layer up. A warm, snug base layer worn against the skin should wick any perspiration to escape in order to avoid your apparel getting damp and causing a major drop in body temperature.
The second layer is usually a thicker thermal layer, but should also be breathable to allow moisture through. This layer should be stripped as soon as you feel you’re overheating to avoid excessive perspiration. A final outer layer – usually a wind shell and possibly protective over-trousers – helps protect you against wind chill. Combine this with gloves and shoe covers if the weather turns out to be really extreme.
|FAST FACTS BLOCK – Hantam Trails
|GRADING:||Beginner / Intermediate (sand and loose gravel)|
|DURATION:||90min – 3hrs|
|ELEVATION||Total Gain (478m) / Max (1276m)|
||36.5km (depending on route choice)|
|CONFIGURATION:||There and back|
|START POINT:||Hanvol Gruis|
|GPS COORDS:||S31°19’36.1” / E19°53’02.6”|
|TERRAIN||Gravel roads, dual track and stock footpaths|
|ENTRY REQU9IREMENTS:||Free to guests; no day rides|
|FACILITIES||Range of accommodation and meal options; wood available|
||Not much signal|
|BEWARE OF:||Sandy river crossings; extreme heat; snow|
||Ronelle Nel – 082 613 1262|
Take the Klipwerf turn-off from the R27 between Williston/Brandvlei and Calvinia. (16km outside of Calvinia) Keep straight on the gravel road for 22km until you reach a sign Vanrhynshoek and Handvol Gruis, turn left. Keep straight for 6 km.