So you’ve got a small pile of cash saved and want to buy yourself a second-hand, reasonably economical 4×4 SUV to do a bit of back roads exploring. Nick Yell managed to buy the vehicle he was seeking for just over R 80 000, and then took it on a rigorous back roads test.
I had narrowed my search down to three vehicle types and eventually opted for a 2000 Pajero iO 1.8l 5-door. It was in seemingly good condition with 171 000km on the clock and came for the fair price of R69 000.
As with any second-hand car, particularly when you are a pedantic purchaser like me, I had things to do to it before it was in the desired condition. In the end, with all the servicing and replacement of tyres, shocks, steering bushes and so on, I spent nearly R82 000.
With one back roads trip to Sutherland already under my belt, including a mild-mannered Grade 2 4×4 track, I was starting to feel good about my purchase; but I still needed to see how it would handle being an adventure motorbike backup vehicle.
The perfect opportunity came when I needed to guide a veteran adventure biker client of mine, Adam Schwindt, through the Cederberg, Tankwa, Hantam, Bo- and Koup Karoo in late spring. While Adam is still sprightly at 78, taking a back-up vehicle meant we could pamper him with a comfortable camping chair, hot coffee from the thermos, cool drinks from the fridge and all manner of treats and snacks from our on-board grocery hamper.
Our three-day, two–night route was to take in the towns of Worcester, Ceres, Calvinia, Middelpos, Sutherland, Merweville, Laingsburg and Touws River; a predominantly back roads odyssey of 1 140km — 668km (nearly 60% of it) on dirt roads.
“Now this is more like it,” I said, sipping hot coffee and eating a freshly baked muffin while reclining in a camping chair and admiring the spectacular view of the Tankwa Karoo from the top of Skittery Pass.
We’d got on the dirt about 25km out of Op-die-Berg and were following the Kagga Kamma road that connects the Katbakkies and Skittery passes before joining the R355 between Ceres and Calvinia. Both these passes were originally used by the Khoi to herd sheep between the higher and lower-lying grazing grounds.
Our small convoy – I was in front on my old Honda Africa Twin XRV750, with Adam following on his new Honda Africa Twin CRF1000L and Annette Theron, my fiancée, brought up the rear in the Pajero iO – was settling into a good rhythm with following distances of about 100m and an average speed of 80km/h on the gravel.
On a long weekend, with a surfeit of dust-producing traffic, it’s really not much fun to travel the R355 to Calvinia. Not only is it a grind, on previous trips I’ve seen a number of stray donkey wandering into the road in the vicinity of the Tankwa Padstal. If a motorbike hits one of those in a dust cloud and you’ll be jackal fodder for sure.
“How is the Paj handling the dirt road so far,” I asked Annette at our next roadside stop just beyond Die Bos.
“Good overall, the back end is just a bit skittish around corners with corrugations; and I have to hang back a lot to avoid sucking up all your dust,” she replied.
The problem with having such comfortable roadside seating arrangements is that it takes all your resolve to get back in the saddle again. But with only 80km to go to our overnight stop at the Calvinia Hotel, and the prospect of knocking back a few dust-loosening beers, we were soon motivated to continue.
I last stayed at this hotel about 10 years back and while it’s still an architecturally challenged relic from the sixties on the outside, the interiors have been spruced up nicely and the boerekos nouvelle we enjoyed in the dining room that night was most enjoyable. Luckily we’d brought our own wine, though, as most of the wines on the list were not available.
The route for Day 2, up Keiskie se Poort to the elevated plateau of the Bo-Karoo, entailed a roundabout journey to Sutherland and then the most anticipated section of the day, the 110km dirt track to Merweville, which would take in a breathtaking descent into the lower-lying Koup Karoo via the Rammelskop and Allemanshoek Passes.
Having climbed the Keiskie Mountains, we followed the narrow farm track for about 10km when the road deteriorated badly. With Adam and I standing up on the pegs to make it over the deep ruts and dongas that appeared just over a rise, I hoped Annette’s novice 4×4 skills (one previous outing of about 5km) would get her through the short Grade 2 section.
But when she caught up with us at our first reasonable showing of spring flowers a short while later, she was unperturbed and said the baby Pajero had taken the obstacles in its stride. Its full-blown 4×4 capabilities (the super-select system includes low range with diff-lock) was the reason I was keen to buy it over its competitors. And with the slightly higher profile Dunlop Grandtrek AT3 tyres I’d fitted, the Pajero’s ground clearance now stood at a respectable 210mm.
The route between Keiskie se Poort and Middelpos requires some rally-like navigating. It’s not rocket science, but you certainly need to plot your route and measure off the distances to the various turns in your map book (okay, I know I should buy a GPS unit, but I’m a bit old school) otherwise you could easily find yourself having tea and koeksisters with Tant Sannie and Oom Hendrik on a dead-end farm road; and you may never get away.
We decided to take an alternative route into Sutherland I’d discovered sometime back, because the last time we travelled the R354 it was so badly corrugated after Oupoort Pass I nearly swallowed my false tooth, and that would have really spoilt my day.
This delightful detour will only add about 10km to your journey, but it rewards handsomely in terms of the deep space it leads you into; setting your mind free to
dream about swaying in a hammock between the poplars surrounding the idyllic-looking farmsteads that occasionally punctuate the parched landscape. (On my return I received a troubling letter from a nearby guest farm I’ve stayed at often, asking for emergency drought aid. If you are able to donate R135 for a bag of mielie feed, please contact Lien Fourie on 023 5712 745.)
Sutherland came and went in a blur of dust, coffee shops and guest houses. Finally, the road to Merweville I’d been anticipating with great excitement was upon us. The most notable feature in the first 50km or so, as you descend the gradually sloping escarpment, is the extinct volcano on your left; aptly called Salpetrekop.
The most engaging and scenic part of this dirt track starts at the first left turn to Merweville. It twists and turns its way down the increasingly steeper slopes of the escarpment and because of its favourable positioning, it receives more thunderstorm activity than the areas around it, resulting in pockets of verdure.
We were reminded of this when we came across a flooded drift running over the Riet River. It was about 30m across and while I know the ‘manual’ stipulates putting ‘foot before rubber’, I decided to wing it and took my motorbike right through the middle. Luckily it was only about 30cm deep and I made it across without embarrassing myself.
Standing up on the pegs of his new Africa Twin, Adam also made it across with no problem and Annette passed her first wading test in the Pajero without issue. In fact, she enjoyed it so much she went back so I could get a better photograph.
The nourishment from our earlier roadside flower stop near Middelpos had long worn off and I looked for a good vantage point from which to appreciate the view near the top of the Rammelkop Pass. I settled on a boulder-strewn slope – it looked like the fossilised midden of stone age giants – and we were soon comfortably ensconced in our camping chairs feeding on all sorts of roadside snacks and sipping the last of the coffee from the thermos.
The view over the hard-silled mountains into the lower lying Karoo below made us feel like a group of raptors, looking for prey from up on high. The majesty of our location was enhanced by a thunderstorm that had crept up on us at great speed. And with lightning starting to erupt from the storm’s pregnant belly, I suggested we make it down the pass as soon as we could as I didn’t much fancy the idea of being burnt to a crisp.
While I was racing down the slopes, stupidly trying to outrun the storm, my memory harked back to the story I’d read recently about Wilf Walker and his wife who became stranded in a snow storm around here in June 2014.
Approaching from the other side, they had noticed storm clouds coming in from the west; but it was becoming so cold that when they got to the foot of the Rammelkop Pass, it had started snowing. Like most of us would be, they were delighted with this development and Wilf simply engaged low-range and continued; not aware of how quickly the situation would change during his 300m ascent of the pass.
The weather deteriorated badly and the storm suddenly turned so violent that visibility was almost down to zero. Soon afterwards they felt their car sliding off the road and before they could do anything about it, the bakkie ground to a halt in a culvert filled with snow. Not able to extricate themselves, the Walkers spent the night in their car (with the engine running, lest the diesel froze) before they were luckily rescued by a police Casspir the next day.
After we’d transited both passes and were down on the flats of the Koup Karoo, I noticed the storm was making good on its promise to cut us off. And with lightning still spewing its incandescent vitriol over the road up ahead, I suggested to Adam we wait it out in the car.
The Springbok Lodge in Merweville is a delightful old home transitioned into a comfortable period guest house and more modern caravan park by retired West Coast dominee Kallie le Roux. It’s a place I’ve stayed at a number of times over the years and the wholesome, home-cooked food prepared by host Mary-Ann is always a highlight.
I got my chance to ride Adam’s new Africa Twin the next day. After a quick briefing at the local petrol station concerning all its gadgetry – such as traction control, ABS and the like – I took off for the 82km dirt track which would lead us to the Koup railway siding off the N1.
After getting a feel for the bike’s controls, power delivery and braking performance, I started to open the throttle a bit wider and tested the handling on various surfaces. My first impressions were just how much nimbler the bike felt to my old Africa Twin, despite it being heavier than mine. At first, I was slightly underwhelmed by the lack of power difference between the two bikes, but after a while, I realised that the more than ample 70kW motor has been built to deliver a smooth, softly tuned power curve that will allow most riders to be able to use its power safely on dirt. As importantly, the engine’s low compression ratio (1:10) is part of its guarantee of Honda reliability and longevity.
All too soon, my mini ‘test ride’ was over, as was the marvellously meditative dirt track that led us to the N1. But as we rode towards a cup of coffee at the Wimpy in Laingsburg, I was already planning my next back roads trip. My only dilemma was whether to take the motorbike or my now well-christened budget explorer.
Trip Facts at a glance
Towns en-route Bot River, Villiersdorp, Worcester, Ceres, Op-die-Berg, Calvinia, Middelpos, Sutherland, Merweville, Laingsburg, Touws River and Worcester.
Distance travelled 1 140km, 668km (nearly 60%) on dirt roads over three days.
Road conditions Most of the dirt roads were in reasonable condition, but if you drive the R355 to Calvinia, best do it out of season. The Bo-Karoo’s roads are often slippery after rain (especially those on the edge of the escarpments) so make sure your tyres are in good condition. Better still, watch the weather carefully and avoid travelling after or during heavy rains and snow.
Petrol stops en route All the major towns have petrol stations, but Sutherland’s petrol station only opens between 12 and 2pm on Sundays.
Minimum vehicle requirements High clearance AWD SUV with all-terrain tyres.
Car used Pajero iO, 4×4, 1.8l five-door
Motorbikes used 1991 Honda Africa Twin (XRV750) & 2017 Honda Africa Twin (CRF1000L)
Best time of year to go April to October, depending on snowfall.
Route highlights Katbakkies and Skittery passes, the whole of Day 2’s route, the 82km dirt track from Merweville to Koup siding on the N1 and the Witteberge dirt track (65km) that is about 6km south of Laingsburg and runs parallel to the N1; west towards Touws River.
Accommodation and campsites The Calvinia Hotel (Tel: 027 341 1512) and Springbok Lodge (Tel: 083 255 6931)
Budget Accommodation R1 200 for two people sharing. Petrol, food, drinks, etc: About R3 500*.
Total R4 700 *Includes petrol for one motorbike and the Pajero iO @ 10l/100km