December Riding Report - The Groenkloof Wilderness

December Riding Report - The Groenkloof Wilderness


"The adventure starts when things go wrong"

The wheel approached from the left, trying to overtake me. A second later, it was overtaking on the right. I was in the middle of a Clay Monster and the rear wheel trying to take the lead belonged to my bike. There is an old off-road biker adage that says, "When in doubt open the throttle". I gunned the throttle and the wheel disappeared back behind me where it belonged. The Clay Monster petered out and I slid to a halt, pulse racing. It was at least the hundredth Clay Monster I had negotiated that morning and I was only 30Km into the route. I listened for Jurie's bike but all I could hear was the ticking noises from my cooling exhaust, the clanking of a windpomp and the rain on my helmet. A glance at the GPS told me I had just crossed the Groot River. It puzzled me that it wasn’t flowing. I had left East London at 03h30 that morning, trying to make Hankey by 07h30 where I was to meet Jurie for breakfast. He had ridden up from Cape Town the day before. Traveling the coastal road from East London to Port Elizabeth, it was initially hot and humid but before I hit the Kidds Beach turnoff, it was raining lightly but steadily. I was dry and warm inside my kit and behind my visor, I was listening to the steady drone of the exhaust along with one hit wonders of the 70's while the GPS took care of the navigation.
  
As it got lighter and visibility improved, I eased the speed up to 145km/h, which is the Africa Twins sweet spot. Slowly the towns and landmarks rolled by. I had expected to make PE before refueling but just before Coega, the engine missed a beat and before I could panic, the familiar low fuel symptoms prompted me to turn the fuel tap onto reserve. I wasn’t sure where the next petrol station was but at the press of a button, Mr. Garmin informed me there was a filling station just 5kms ahead right alongside the road. He also gave me every other refueling option within a 200km radius. Wonderfull things GPS's. I would be less trusting by the end of the day. I rolled into Colchester and filled up. It was still raining. Steadily. I resisted the temptation of a cup of coffee and pressed on down over the Swartkops River and onto the bypass towards the N2. Soon I turned off the N2 towards Hankey. The rain and low cloud slowed me up but despite this, I pulled up in front of the unimposing Hankey Hotel at 07h35.
  
Over an imposing breakfast, we decided to follow the advice of the Baviaanskloof Ranger and not to attempt our planned ride through the Baviaanskloof. Water crossings were at 4X4 door handle height he had told me the day before on the phone. Jurie had discovered an alternative route along a parallel valley slightly to the north. The road traversed the Groenkloof wilderness area. We would ride a series of huge U's towards Willowmore, a little more than 300km's away. We set off for Patensie in the rain, where we filled up and then turned off the tar just before 08h30.

from Africa
 
We were immediately challenged by slippery and muddy ascents, often with negative cambers and always rutted. If you end up in a wheel rut on a bike, you almost invariably fall off. Within 2kms, a rut with Juries name on it caught him. I stopped on the crest of the climb and not hearing Juries bike, switched off and walked back down, where I found him trying to lift his bike. It was impossible in the slippery mud. I helped him up and then pushed from behind to get him going. Just before he let the clutch out I closed my helmet's visor against the spray of mud from his rear wheel. Within a kilometer Jurie was down again. It was treacherous going, but ever the optimists we hoped it would get better. It got worse, far worse. At kilometer number 14 on my trip computer I felt the familiar symptoms of a flat rear wheel. I shot a bottle of slime into the tube and pumped it up with a can of puncture fix. It was still raining and the low cloud scudded along the road all around us. Within a few kilos my back wheel was flat again. I gave it the last of my puncture arsenal and set off trying to make up speed wherever conditions allowed. Our plan B was to make for Steylerville, about 60 kilos away and get back onto tar. The GPS showed that we had to cross the Groot River first! On what looked like the crest of a saddle the road improved and if not for the uncertainties of my rear tube I would have begun enjoying myself immensely.

from Africa
   
Stopping to open and close a series of farm gates we pressed on into the mist. I took the lead, mainly because I had a slowly leaking rear tyre and was trying to minimize the number of stops to pump it up. It was at this point that I negotiated the Mother of all Clay Monsters and crossed what I thought was the Groot River. I waited for Jurie. I waited some more and took the opportunity to pump up my tyre. My cell phone showed no network coverage. Thirty minutes later I began walking back to look for him.
  
It is a measure of the conditions that I opted to walk. It didn’t even occur to me to attempt to retrace my tracks through the Clay Monster and her subsequent siblings. It was raining steadily so I kept my helmet on. After 20 minutes of brisk walking I still hadn’t spotted Jurie. While I debated with myself about at which point I was going to return to my bike another part of my brain was computing the options should I find Jurie with a broken bone or worse. Just then I spotted his bike, lying on its side on a steep descending strip of mud. I called out but there was no sign of anyone. I kept going. I was in full off-road gear so running wasn’t an option. I had a feeling of foreboding and felt a pang of panic in the pit of my stomach. Just then I spotted Jurie coming down the road.
 
He had fallen off and come down hard. The front brake on his bike was broken so his ride was over. He had managed to get one bar of signal on the crest of the hill and a 4x4 bakkie was en route to take him back to Hankey. We had a quick conference. Because I believed I had crossed the Groot River I decided to push on to Steytlerville. I would phone Jurie once I got there. Depending on how he succeeded in getting his bike rideable again, we would meet in Willowmore perhaps. I just wanted to get back onto a tar road. I set off back to my bike.
 
It was still raining steadily and visibility was restricted to a few hundred metres. I swung my leg over the Africa Twin and set off as fast as my talent and conditions allowed. It had taken 2 hours to do 30 kilometres. I had to make up time. At this rate I had another four hours of riding ahead of me to get to Steytlerville.
  

from Africa

The Africa twins we were riding were far too much bike for the conditions. Weighing in at over 200 kilograms they were a handful in the slippery conditions. The chances of picking one up on your own in the mud were remote. I was trying to remember that the adventure starts when things go wrong. The problem was the route was remote. There was no cell phone reception. The weather was poor and I wasn’t prepared for a night in the Groenkloof. This all made me all the more determined not to fall off. Besides I wasn’t in the mood for adventure anymore. I wanted to be sitting in front of a fire drying my boots. The road was rocky but the Clay Monsters were not to be seen. I started to descend into a valley. The road was rocky, rutted and stepped by 4x4 bakkie wheels clawing their way up in the opposite direction. At times I was still moving at considerable speed despite both wheels being locked. I would have to release the brakes as I began approaching the fall-off of the road so that I could steer up the camber towards the mountain. I couldn’t see how high the fall off was and I had no plans of finding out. I wrestled the bike down the slope and finally the road leveled out. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to relax my arms and shoulders. I hooked third gear and coming around a gentle right hand bend I was suddenly confronted with the Groot River. So much for Mr. Garmin doing his job!!
  
It had been raining for two days. The Groot River was in flood and about 400m wide at the crossing. The water flowed smoothly, with big eddying whirlpools warning the unwary. My spirits sank. I killed the engine and got off the bike to study the crossing. The causeway was constructed of round white river stones about 200mm in diameter. I walked into the river to gauge the strength and depth of the water. Halfway across, the water was almost waist high. I turned around. Just then a 4X4 bakkie slithered to a halt. The driver told me that he had passed Jurie being loaded onto a bakkie. He was coming to rescue his Land Rover, which had drowned crossing the river the day before. It was stuck out of sight on the other side. He offered to load my bike on his truck to get me across or alternately help me push it across. It was too deep to ride. If I dropped the bike in the deep water I would have a real problem.
  
I asked him what the road was like to Steytlerville. When he told me that the climb out of the valley was worse than the descent I had just negotiated and the balance much the same as the road I had just travelled. I immediately opted to turn around and retrace my steps to Hankey. I wasn’t in the mood for a hellish climb and another 60 kilometers of Clay Monsters. I squished my way back to the Africa Twin. The clay had built up on the tyres until it was rubbing on the insides of the mudguards. Pulling on my now wet helmet I began to feel trapped. I couldn’t opt out and phone for help at this stage. I couldn’t walk out, it was too far. Anyway I had nothing to eat or drink. Thanks to the rain, water was plentiful, a steady supply on the end of my moustache saw to that. I really wasn’t prepared for the conditions and it played on my nerves. I fired up the bike and used the flat portion of the road to get a running start at the incline. Almost at once I was involved in a huge wrestling match as the bike clawed its way up the hill. Big outcrops of rocks peppered the road. Because of the clay I was only marginally in control and negotiating a slalom course through the rocks was a real challenge. The back wheel spun crazily, weaving from side to side. I was standing on the pegs using my weight to guide the bike, desperately trying not to fall off. I got into third gear. I had to maintain momentum at all costs. If I stopped I would never get going again. Every time I felt the back tyre bite into the road I opened the throttle in huge twists of the grip. Finally I reached the crest of the hill and sat down in the saddle. I now had to keep a keen watch for Clay Monster ambushes.
   
A road never looks even vaguely familiar when traveling in the opposite direction, even though I had come this way just an hour before. I finally recognized the approach to the huge Clay Monster that had almost claimed me as a victim earlier. I sailed through it, picking a line on the crest of the middelmannetjie. A hundred or so lesser Clay ambushes passed. The trip meter was counting down the distance to the tar road. I had travelled 38 kilometers to the Groot River. I relaxed a little as I opened and then closed farm gate after farm gate. The various ingenious designs invented by farmers to keep cattle gates closed never cease to amaze me. Some required a minute of study before it became apparent how it all worked. I glanced down at the trip meter. 4 kilos to the tar it informed me. I looked back up. Another lesser Clay Monster lay ahead. I picked a line to the right of the road, on the gentle slope that formed the right hand wheel track. I noticed that my previous line had been in the rut. Not a clever move I thought sticking to the better-looking line to the right.
   

from Africa

Before I knew it I was down. The bike slid away from me in a lazy arc coming to a stop on its right side. I stood up and fell down, slipping in the clay. I slithered down the slope coming to rest in the grass on the side of the road. I tried to walk back up to the bike without success. Even on hands and knees I got nowhere fast. Looking around I found a flat stone and dug  a series of steps towards the bike. I indexed my boots into two steps and tried lifting the bike. I knew I had to get it up within three attempts or I wouldn’t succeed at all. The bike slipped away from me every time I lifted it even a few degrees. I had no choice but to climb over it and dig two holes for the wheels. I tried once more. I was exhausted. It was almost one o clock. Four and a half hours and just 72 kilometers since I had turned off the tar that morning. The bike remained stubbornly on its side. Petrol was leaking from the tank, running into my tank bag and then forming a shiny slick on the clay. I struggled to remove the saddle and rear luggage. With my back to the bike and a handhold on the handlebar and frame I got the bike to a 45-degree angle and turned around so I could rest it on my bent knees. I rested for a minute. One more heave and it was upright. We both slid slowly down the camber of the road back into the grass.

from Africa

It took 15 minutes to carefully manoeuvre the bike past the clay and back onto the road because the front wheel was jammed by the accumulated clay between the tyre and mudguard, and the rear wheel couldn’t get any traction at all. At quarter to two, I turned left onto the tar road to Hankey, riding through every puddle of water I could to rid the mudguards of the sticky clay. It was almost 6 o clock when Jurie and I checked into the unimposing Hankey Hotel having replaced my rear tube and jury-rigged his front brake in Patensie.
 
The hotel was an oasis of hot baths and warm beverages. After a long hot bath, two double Captain Morgan’s and Coke and a huge rump steak I was in bed at 9 o clock. The next morning we would ride home to Cape Town. Rain was forecast all the way. It was at least 600 kilometers. My gloves and helmet were sopping wet and without doubt would still be the next morning. My boots, upended in the handbasin, dripped brown river water. I contemplated the various routes home as I dozed off.
   
I couldn’t wait for the alarm to wake me.....


Gavin Liggett
Cape Town, South Africa
March, 2008