I really do get to do some cool stuff on a bike. Four weeks ago I joined the inaugural Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park Desert Knights. A long name for a very unique adventure.
The event starts at the Fish River Canyon view point in Namibia and ends in the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa. On a Saturday I cruised up from Cape Town, along the N7 with my riding partner Tom, and his wife Sheila. Sadly, we were on a very tight schedule, with both Tom and I needing to be back home for work mid-week. So we could only spend three of the total six days on our bikes. But that didn’t stop us lapping up the opportunity to explore some virgin territory on two wheels.
We arrived in a blazing dust cloud at Ai-Ais on Sunday morning. The heat was unbearable and as I stepped out of the air-conditioned Land Rover I immediately understood the rationale for running the stages in the cooler evening. The hot springs and campsite were already abuzz with a small group of riders and a huge contingent of Transfrontier Park rangers and staff. We set about cleaning 100km of dirt road from our bikes and readying them for a spin.
The riding started at the mind-blowing Fish River Canyon in the late afternoon. After skirting the canyon’s precipitous edge as a group we dropped into some flat but exceptionally rocky jeep track. I was chatting as I rode with route planner Craig Beech, who euphemistically described the last part of the trail as “subtle”.
Subtle indeed. At various points the jeep track disappeared entirely. We often found ourselves making use of the criss-crossing game tracks that beasts have forged through this arid land over millenia. We startled a hulking kudu bull who galloped for cover and spotted a herd of zebra on the horizon. It was spectacular.
As the sun faded and threw the shadows far from our bikes we turned onto a boulevard of gravel. The moonlight soon compensated and we pushed through dark corrugations and past ghostly kokerbome.
The rangers had set up campsites all along the route and an hour or two into the full-moon gloom we encountered a fire, ice-cold drinks and a plate of biltong, homemade banana bread and pies. The perfect compliment to nature’s evening theatre. We arrived back at Ai-Ais around midnight, after 90-odd kilometres of sweat, dirt and smiles.
The next day we milled about the Ai-Ais resort, again waiting for the temperature to drop so we could tackle the 5km climb straight from the start. Riders left in loosely organised batches every half hour or so. I waited till 5pm to bring up the rear with Craig Beech.
But I was soon flying up the pass on my own – mesmerised by the barren landscape and eroded strata of rose quartz tumbling down the rock faces around me. It is a desolate place, but pleasant riding once you get the hang of dodging the energy-sapping corrugations.
As the sun dipped below the horizon on my right I caught up with Tom and then George and Fanie. We made an efficient peleton of four, riding into a strong headwind and watching the twilight fill the desert around us. As the night sky descended and the moon rose bright and full we reached a waterpoint on the gravel highway.
Ahead lay a long, dark and sandy jeep track climb to the mountain top and the promise of more biltong and drinks. Tom, George and Fanie wisely decided the sand was too heavy and so stole around the climb on a (longer) gravel road. I set off up the hillside on my own, cursing the desert and trying to maintain momentum over the tricky terrain. For over an hour I battled gravity, frequently digging my bike into the sand and barely weaving my way out of it. Finally, a faint light appeared ahead. The darkness and eery quiet played havoc with my perception of distance, and I almost rode into the rangers’ four-wheel drive parked at the summit. I was soon wolfing down biltong and banana bread and pouring fruit juice down my throat. Then on into the night I sped…
The rangers (with Sheila’s help) had placed lanterns at 800m to 1km intervals on the vague and snaking jeep track trail off the mountain. I turned off my riding light and lined my bike up between each lantern and powered downhill. Near the top the earth was firm, even rocky, under my wheels, but as I descended it turned to desert sand again. I found that maintaining a high speed was the only way to float atop the sandy track. So I adopted a time trial position and let rip. The descent was exhilarating. In half an hour I caught two groups of riders who, according to the ranger at the top of the mountain, had left the summit two hours ahead of me. It was magic. After about an hour I was on the gravel road Tom, George and Fanie had chosen, and soon the grey walls of the Gamkab Gorge reared up around me in the dark night.
Our campsite for the evening was in an ancient dry riverbed, beneath a sheer rock cliff a hundred metres high. I arrived giddy with adrenaline and beaming from ear to ear. And starving… It was around 11pm, and a hearty oxtail concoction barely touched sides. It was washed down with plenty of the rangers’ home brewed beers. After a quick camp shower that was more symbolic than effective I crashed in my tent. I woke briefly to hear groups of riders trickle into the campsite over the next few hours, but the exercise had made me mostly dead to the world.
Tom, Sheila and I left the Gamkab Gorge campsite at dawn, eager to escape the rowdy game rangers preparing breakfast as well as the incessant snoring of our fellow campers. Our Land Rover bounced down to the Orange River as the sun gradually set fire to the red earth around us.
We were sad to miss out on the canoe section of the day and jealous the Desert Knights riders had another four days ahead of them. But when all was said and done we had driven 1800km, cycled almost 160km and traveled for four days (two of them on bikes).
It was a crazy privilege.