Gravel biking is somewhat of a traveling circus, with riders trying to outdo each other when it comes to the coolness factor of their respective steeds. Everything is analyzed – from wheel size, tire tread and fork to bars – so a pedal to Great Brak will never end up being boring …
– Copy and images : Jacques Marais
Nope, Knysna does not lie at the heart of the Cape’s ‘Tourism Garden’, my friend. Here’s the deal: there’s an uncharted section of glorious Garden Route Goodness stretching all the way from the streets of Heidelberg to Mossel Bay, and the hide-away villages beyond.
This makes for a stunning swathe of below-the-radar space, unfolding inland from the coast all the way to the Sonderend ranges. And yes, it brims with off-grid routes just waiting to be explored. So now it is up to you to saddle crank gravel road, jeep track and single-track.
It is as simple as klapping a sho’t left (or right) off the N2 anywhere east of Heidelberg if you want that Vitamin G(ravel) Fix to kick in. And once you’re off the main drag, you’ll be meandering via indigenous forests, over craggy mountain passes, or along a tempestuous ocean shoreline.
This specific ride starts in George, and the mountains means you’ll be a bit closer to the ‘weather’, if you know what I mean. Never fear, though: despite the city’s year-round rainfall, you are in for a mainly moderate climate, making it ideal for an outdoor biking adventure.
That’s good news, because it means quality riding for much of all the four seasons. George originally has its roots in the forestry industry, but an on-going eco-tourism boom means it has now become a mountain biking mecca of note.
This gifts riders with endless roads and tracks – often linked to the famed Outeniqua Hiking Trail – with easy access to much of the surrounding slopes. Purpose-built singletrack now traverses much of the indigenous forests and plantations, largely thanks to a dedicated crew, mostly members of the local Hillbillies MTB Club.
Historically, this beautiful part of the Cape was only settled around 1688, two centuries after the Portuguese seafarer, Bartholomew Dias, first landed in Mossel Bay. The local Khoi tribes referred to this rich valley as the ‘Outeniqua’, or ‘land of milk and honey’. (Not to be confused with Camps Bay in Cape Town, which is the land of Milfs and Money).
The early settlement was known as ‘George Town’, named in 1811 in honour of the then reigning monarch, King George III of England. These days, an efficient airport, breathtaking nature spaces, great trails, a thriving foodie scene, craft breweries, proper old-skool values and bucket loads of history make it as much fun off the bike as in the saddle – check out www.visitgeorge.co.za
Most rides here include the ‘Ground Zero’ MTB Hub near Witfontein Plantation, with a network of trails which is the result of many years of hard labour by various local riders who all love the MTB life. Now, a well sign-posed trail network combines singletrack linking the two main forestry roads (the ‘Top’ and ‘Bottom’ contour).
Issue yourself a permit at the Bike Park (riding is free, but Cape Nature instituted a self-permit procedure in order to safeguard both themselves and the riders). Routes are marked with Hillbillies signage – with specific section names – but leaving the configuration up to the riders.
Today is not a single-track day, however. ‘The Crew’ has decided to have at the ‘Graveling Circus, which constitutes a thumping ride all the way from George to the tiny coastal village of Great Brak River. What was non-negotiable was their caffeine craving, and a coffee stop was therefore soon orchestrated …
For want of a better name, it was decided to call this the ‘Brother’s Loop’, in reference to the name of the award-winning little coffee roastery tucked away in the cliffs above Groot Brak River, also the final destination for the day.
This gravel return ride bangs in a south-westerly direction from George, loosely following the R102 meandering via Blanco and onwards to Geelhoutboom (22km). The pedalling is mostly along farm roads, making for fast and swashbuckling riding as you dip past Sinksasbrug (41km) as you make your way to the coast.
This is by no means a challenging ride and if you keep your focus, you’ll be sipping on a damn fine cortado at ‘Brothers’ after a couple of hours. All in all, you are 35km into the ride by the time you cruise into Great Brak, with the cruise back on the mountain side of the graavel roads clocking you in at just over 77km.
Your biggest concern on the ride would be farm bakkies and stretches of corrugation. This is certainly not fun on a rigid gravel machine, but let’s say it builds character, right? In the end, it is the perfect way to kick-start any given weekend morning.
Off The Bike:
Kickass mountains, extensive plantations and fabulous fynbos slopes are a dime a dozen in and around George, but there is so much more to discover in this booming city at the heart of the Garden Route. And with the influx of a younger generation, things are just getting better!
Blue Flag beaches, literally just down the road, include world-famous breaks like Victoria Bay and stunning Buffels Bay, one of my firm favourite surf spots. Plus, there are fresh-water lakes, rivers and kloofs hidden in very kloof and valley gracing this outdoor paradise.
Expansive plains await on the semi-arid Karoo side of the rugged Outeniqua ranges out towards Oudtshoorn, accessible via historic landmark passes such as Montagu Pass or the Seven Passes Road. All in all, you are blessed with truly diverse natural scenery, just make sure you bring your climbing legs!
NOTE: Most of the tracks in the George Region are free-to-ride, but out-of-town mountain bikers can do on-line donations or buy a Hillbillies Pass to support trail builders. Go and check out either www.hillbillies.co.za or www.mtbroutes.co.za for more info.
More Must-Do Rides
1 Gourikwa Private Nature Reserve
Gourikwa Private Nature Reserve is situated along the old Stilbaai Road, just on 8km after you cross the Gourits River. You’ll find a village –slightly lost in time – here, with family homes, an imposing old church, conference centre and restaurant rising up from the tempestuous shoreline. All in all, you will feel a thousand miles away from civilisation as you fire up the braai as the sunset hues turn the ocean to liquid gold.
Pedal off on a gradual 5km ascent to the main gate, looking for a track to your left off the tarmac. This ascends into the upper ridges of the reserve, where a good 60km of jeep tracks traverses the fynbos ridges unfolding towards Stilbaai. Look for the next sand track to your left – parallel to the tarmac – in order to connect with the Scenic Drive Route.
Options abound, and you can’t really get lost as long as you keep an eye on the ocean; if the tracks sound to sandy and steep, do a village circuit with the family, or crank to your heart’s content onto the access road into Gourikwa – www.gourikwa.co.za
2 Jakkalsvlei Wine Estate
It’s always a great to explore a brand-new playground, especially if it is an outdoor arena within which you can both run and ride. Although I know the Mossel Bay area pretty well, I’ve never had the pleasure of tripping into the back-country biosphere near the small village of Herbertsdale, situated on the banks of the Gourits River.
Wine was the last thing I expected in this renosterveld region, so what a pleasant surprise it was to discover the Jakkalsvlei Wine Estate. There’s much more to the Herbertsdale area than lekker wine and kiff people, especially if you have a gravel bike. Dozens of remote gravel roads meander into the hinterland here, and regular local rides leave from the Shell Garage near the N2. Good news is that you have 4km of purpose-built single-track on Jakkalsvlei to look forward to as a pre-pinotage piece de resistance.
The annual Jakkalsvlei Aramex MTB Challenge is the perfect way to get to know the local riders (and through them the many gravel routes). This superbly executed event – with no less than three MTB distances and two trail runs – boasts a full-on family vibe – www.jakkalsvlei.co.za
3 Rooster Trails, Eight Bells Mountain Inn
Head along the tarmac shoulder from Eight Bells Mountain Inn, turning left after 2.5km towards Botlierskop. Various routes will get you there, but keep left via ‘Big Dipper’ and then through Moordkuil’s hectic river route to this private nature reserve (23km). Crank back via Donald’s Heights, Leeukloof Loop and the Rooster Trails for a ride sure to dial a smile on your face. (Hotel staff can assist in arranging permits for Ruitersbos Plantation.)
Any route configuration can work on the Rooster Trails; an option is to blast down into the valley along the Blue route. Turn left onto yellow at the dam before climbing along the less steep Red route (still near vertical). Follow the Red anti-clockwise around lookout Peak to the rugby field; then go into DH mode along any number of chutes back into the valley – www.mtbroutes.co.za / www.eightbells.co.za
Best Time of Year:
Generally, summers are warm and pleasant, especially in the forests, while winter may come with snow or extreme cold, with the brunt of the elements expected high up near the rugged peaks.
Yup, it’s a gravel road, and if you’ve picked up some morning dew on the chain, chances are you are creating a lekker little grinding paste … A clean bike means you’ll get more girls (or guys, or whatever your gender requirements may be these days), so best you break out the SQUIRT Bike Cleaner!
The good news is that this world-class product is available either in a ready-to use 750ml spray bottle (or travel-size 60ml bottles, too), as well as in concentrate solutions in both 1l and 5l sizes (this is more economical and therefore perfect for bike shops and event organisers). Remember that the normal dilution of 1:25 is perfect for general bike washing applications, while a double-strength (1:12 solution) will work best when degreasing your chain. (A side note: if you’re using SQUIRT Chain Lube, there will hardly ever be wax build-up on your chain, which means you won’t even have to think of cleaning it).
Leave the foam on the area you’re cleaning for a few minutes before you start the wash, as this allows the powerful degreaser to kick in and soften the gunk, enabling you to gently rinse without the need for heavy scrubbing. The spray bottle is by far the best way to apply the bike cleaner, as it covers a large surface area with foam and equates to minimal wastage. The good news is that SQUIRT Cycling Products are biodegradable and therefore kind to the planet, so even those suds that drips down onto the grass won’t destroy the environment – www.squirtcyclingproducts.com
Map, Elevation Profile & Flyover(s)
|FAST FACTS BLOCK – Great Brak Graveling
|GRADING:||Easy to Intermediate|
|DURATION:||5-7 hours return|
||35km one way / 77km for the loop|
|TOTAL ASCENT:||897m (one way)|
|TERRAIN:||Gravel; some tarmac|
|CONFIGURATION:||A to B return ride|
|START POINT:||Ground Zero Bike Park|
|GPS COORDINATES:||33°56’46.2″S / 22°27’23.5″E|
|ENTRY REQUIREMENTS:||Public access|
||Accommodation options on www.visitgeorge.co.za|
||Hillbillies (Emile) 082 880 0760|
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.