The brief was simple: a weekend cycling trip, covering good mileage in unique scenic surroundings, with minimal logistical effort, while maximizing experience.
Words and photography by Kati Csak
CEDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
The Cederberg is an old favorite of mine. The Wilderness Area encompasses about 71.000 hectares of rugged, mountainous terrain. Forming part of the Cape Floral Kingdom it has been declared a World Heritage Site. I had spent plenty of weekends hiking, swimming in crystal clear rivers, exploring ancient caves with San and Khoi bushman paintings, mountain biking, star gazing, visiting Rooibos tea plantations, mission towns and of course marveling at the red sandstone formations – the options are countless.The beauty of the Cederberg Conservancy lies in its remoteness, despite most access points being within a mere 3hrs drive of Cape Town. There are only few places to stay inside the wilderness area, the majority of them self-catering, with no shops around to restock supplies. Most of the area has no cell phone reception. Access is only via gravel roads, being there is amazing, getting around inside a drag, a deterrent for many city slicker, as driving times double once you hit the gravel. But herein lies the appeal - a hidden gem to go and explore on the Exploro!
Car packed, bikes loaded, coffee in hand, we managed to sneak out of Cape Town before rush-hour, leaving the hustle and bustle and a busy week at work behind, to escape into a world of solitude. Citrusdal lies in the lush Olifants River Valley, at the base of the Cederberg Mountains, and as the name suggest, agriculture is dominated by citrus farming. The town itself with its 5.000 inhabitants is nothing to write home about, but the surroundings are beautiful, so we stayed about 9km out of town in a small and cozy guest house on a farm. In true South African style, we kicked the weekend off with a braai (BBQ). Carbo-loading is overrated, and one should never underestimate the beneficial effects anti-oxidants contained in red wine have on your cycling performance the next day ;-)
We had chosen Citrusdal as the start location for our trip for a number or reasons:
- Minimize driving time – only 2 hours from Cape Town, it’s one of the closest access points from Cape Town into the Cederberg.
- Minimize weight on the bikes, hence only self-cater the first night when still at the car.
- Enjoy comfortable accommodation on route.
- Don't do crazy distances and have two balanced days of riding.
- Make it circular as public transport is non-existent.
- Take in the highlights without doubling up on the route.
Once you leave Citrusdal, there are no shops or obvious spots to fill up on drinking water, so make sure to take all your water and snacks for on the bike with you! There are a few houses and farms on the way where you can knock and ask for water should you run out, but we don’t recommend relying on it. Knowing that temperatures can soar in the Cederberg, we opted for an early start (not without a delicious breakfast served up by the guest house), but where lucky with cool overcast conditions.
The first and biggest hurdle of the day comes after a 10km flat warm-up - Middelberg Pass, leading from Citrusdal into the Koue Bokkeveld (meaning "Cold Buck Shrubland" in Afrikaans). Over 17km it gains 900m in altitude, making for a gentle but steady gradient, giving you a first taste of the Cederberg sandstone formations with its intriguing patterns of erosion and cracking.
Dropping only a third of the distance back down on the other side (even though it feels like a lot more), it’s elevation gain ‘in the bank’ which will come in handy at the end of the day. What follows are 30 fast kilometres, a gradual climb on the profile, but you clock up the miles quickly with about 20km on traffic free tar road, flanked by the Winterhoek Moutain Range on your right and the Cederberg on your left, before turning back off onto gravel and climbing to the highest point of the day, the perfect lunch spot next to the dam.
The descend is somewhat loose and eroded in places, but good fun as it shows off the off-road capabilities of the Exploro. Make sure to drop the tire pressure. From here the mountains are turning increasingly red caused by iron oxide. The riding is flat and fast on the plateau, before dropping down to the river. We are thrilled that it’s (almost) all downhill (mind the two sharp spikes), but also only too aware of what lies on the other side of the river … But for now, we enjoy a cold beer and the last rays on sunshine, turning the back to the climb that awaits the next morning. Mount Ceder is one of the few places in the Cederberg that doesn’t only have comfortable cottages, but also offer meals. Make sure to pre-book as weekends tend to fill up! Advise them 24hours prior to arrival if you require dinner and breakfast.
Who needs coffee for breakfast, when the first six kilometres kick off with a 500m elevation gain, it’s sure to wake you up and get the heart rate pumping! The views make up for the effort, and a blistering descend will take you to Oasis, a friendly backpackers place popular with motorbikers, and ideal to have a quick refreshment stop, even if it’s only about 13km into today’s ride.
The next ‘must’ refreshment stop is Cederberg Wines / Sanddrif at the 30km mark. Unfortunately, the wine tasting is closed on Sundays, but you can buy their award winning wines at reception of their self-catering accommodation. As we wanted to travel light, buying without immediate consumption wasn’t an option – after all, we had been looking forward to their Cap Classique (SA version of Champagne) ever since we left Cape Town. Combined with our packed egg sandwiches from breakfast, re-heated by the sun and squashed into perfect shape in our hydration packs, we enjoyed a delicious Sunday bubbly brunch, feeling revitalized to tackle the remaining 80 odd km.
To get to Uitzicht Pass is a gentle incline heading north. Going into a head wind, we consoled ourselves that once back in the Olifantsriver Valley heading south there would be a tailwind, only to find out that this is not how the local micro-climate works. So instead enjoy the 20km of free mileage descending Uitzicht Pass and Nieuwoudts Pass, taking you from the Algeria valley back into the Olifantsriver Valley.
Once back at the river, you might as well enjoy a swim and the white sandy beach, seeing that the next 10km are character building. A beautiful quiet road along the river, except for the corrugation and sand… try keep your sense of humour, it eventually smoothens out, before turning into tar for the home run into Citrusdal, and the final kilometres back to our car at Olifantsrus Guest House.
Quick change of clothes, pack up, grab some well-deserved and much anticipated burgers at the Spur in Piketberg on our way back to Cape Town, enjoying a beautiful sunset along the way, exhausted but nevertheless revitalized after an amazing weekend away – the Cederberg just never disappoints.