Monday, September 22, 2014

Desert Knights

Come cycle in the desert by the light of the full moon, the website invited. 5 Days of cycling, of which 4 would be at night, and one day of paddling on the Orange river in the middle.

Night-riding started at around 5 - with clothes still wet from swimming just before the ride, to try to keep cool in the spring-desert. The full moon rose at sunset so lights weren't necessary, except where it was necessary to light up the corrugation or sandy patches, or in the dark hour before moonrise on the last night-cycle when the moon started to wane. The first few days were on district roads - which sometimes was just two tracks in the sand. Waterpoints and feeding zones were stocked well - even if you arrived way after the crowds, there were still salt and vinegar chips (or lays lightly salted or nicknaks), an energy drink, ice cold soft drinks, water, ice, potatoes, racefood nougat, cookies, biltong, droewors and belgian-chocolate-coated nougat.

On night-cycling-nights we arrived in camp anything from 9 to 12 (There may have been a racing snake or 2 who were home earlier.) There were hardly any queues at the hot showers ever, suppers were usually a five-star affair. Breakfast was available from 8 till 9, and then generally lazing the day away (at the coldest of the Ai Ais hot pools, or washing bikes in the river) until the next night stage. The bar always had cold beer, soft drinks and wine, and often home-made ginger beer. Sometimes there was arranged activities - a nature-hikes at Hobas, a volleyball-championship on the morning after the paddle-day, a drumming session on the Orange River Beach campsite.

Night 1's ride started a bit late due to some logistics issues at Sendelingsdrift, so the 35 kay sundowner ride to the Fish River Canyon viewsite ended up being a moon-ride. Some custom-built singletrack to the viewpoint where we had beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks, and then slightly downhill on the district road all the way back to Hobas, supper and a talk about the area's geology.

The second stage was along the district road from Hobas to Ai Ais. The 70-something route was mostly downhill with a few short climbs to break the monotony of the corrugation. A fast corrugated downhill with some sandy patches down into AiAis, where we spent a good part of the evening and the most of the next day in the coldest of the hot pools.

Night 3's 60-odd km was probably the hardest of the stages due to the sand and the corrugation. In the beginning, even the downhills on sand was hard, but you learn quickly how to ride it (bum on the back wheel, weight completely off the handlebars, and keep the speed up). A headwind made the only piece of corrugated district road downhill hard to cycle, and then we turned off into sandy patches again - through valleys and around a corner to the most secluded prettiest campsite in the Richtersveld.

Day 4 was an early start (after a late night) for a full day of paddling on the Orange River. The 25 km on the river included some rapids, and were off the water at about 3. Due to navigational issues and a flat tyre, the logistical team (hot showers, food and beer) only arrived at around 5. Luckily we were next to a river and the tents were pitched already, so it was a very lazy 2 hour lie-around, chat, sleep, eating the last of the 'river ratpack-provisions' while we waited. We were treated to a drumming session and traditional Nama-food (2 different lamb pots and an afval-pot, waatlemoenkonfytstukke, potbrood, gemmerbier, slaphakskene, pampoenkoekies, kerrieboontjies, sousboontjies, and moerkoffie and rooibostee on the fire).

Night 5 was a short 41 km ride on district-road tracks. There was about an hour's darkness after sunset before the moon rose, which made for interesting downhills when you suddenly hit an unexpected sandy patch (Keep the weight right back, no weight on the handlebars, and surf the sandy patch until the wheels find solid ground again.) Big, fun downhills, and a very pretty campsite after a short climbie at the end (the Venstervalle hiking trail basecamp). It was much colder than the previous nights, and the fire-side conversations were much closer to the fire than the previous nights.

The last day was a daylight-stage of 60-something km through the most unreal terrain I've cycled in: quarts fields, Richtersveld koppies, 2 tracks that changed into 1 track, and then into technical climbies and more technical huge fun drops on the other side, interspersed with some sandy bits to keep us honest. Full marks to the person who designed this day's course.

The logistics for this event is mindblowing. I counted roughly 50 support crew for the 100 cyclists ... tents must be pitched and unpithed, an ambulance, a Bell truck for fresh drinking water (and shower water), portable donkeys to ensure hot water for the portable showers, giant bike-racks to transport 100 bicycles, a (quiet!) generator to provide charging stations for cameras, GPSes and other must-chargables, game-viewers to short-cut tired riders up hills or over entire stages. And a bar that never ran out of wine, ginger beer, soft drinks and ice. (Although it arrived in camp a few hours late once due to a puncture.)

A definite bucket list adventure, and I would certainly classify this as one of the best events I've done. Doable with a 26er hardtail, of which there were many. Like a hiking trail was meant to be hiked, and not run, so this adventure is meant to be cycled, and not raced.

Stop, take pictures of the setting sun in the desert and the sand-track by moonlight, eat some of the belgian-chocolate-nougat at the feedings stations, deliver some appletizer to the marshalls 2 km further from the waterpoint, and take time to take in the surreal landscape.


On the way back I realised that corrugation and sand is also 'real' mountain biking. And I wondered what makes a mountain bike adventure great. There are certainly different factors, but if you had to rate them, what would the criteria be? Would the great singletrack of Sani2C be enough reason to do the ride again and again? Or would Ride2Rhodes be a 'better' experience because you don't have to queue for singletrack, and because of the people that you meet? Or maybe the sense of accomplishment when finishing something like in Joberg2C - but is it worth doing again, if there are so many other adventures and places that you haven't ridden?

This one? Definitely on par with the experience I had in the Himalayas. Easily as beautiful every day. Far easier cycling, though, and therefore, something that I will definitely consider doing again. One of the best bike adventures I've done, because of the adventure of cycling at night, because of the paddle inbetween, because the holiday-feel to it, because of the amazing singletrack on the last day, because of the variety.

May the spirit of this event never change ... and may the masses never discover this event, so that there will be place for me, my other half, my brother and his son on Easter weekend 2016.

Dust on the way to the Fish River Canyon viewpoint sundowners

The 'short nature hike' at Hobas turned out to be a 4 hour adventure - but the swimming pool was worth it.

The campsite on night 3.

Arriving at the Orange River Beach after the paddle-leg

Campsite next to the Orange River


Donkeys to ensure hot showers

Portable showers - genius systems, but if you're not strong enough to hoist that bucket up, remember to ask someone before you get in - otherwise you'll have to shower under a 1 meter high shower - like the person in the shower on the far right :)


The pont at Sendelingsdrift