Cederberg Scooter Weekend
All images © Christopher List Photography
The alarm trilled annoyingly at 6:30 am and we leapt out of bed, still exhausted from our frantic purchasing spree the day before, where we'd invested in rainsuits, gloves, thermal underwear, polar fleece jackets and whatever else we thought we'd need for the icy cold weather in Cederberg.
We'd burned the midnight oil getting our bikes ready and packed, screwing in a bracket to hold down our spare fuel canister and tying everything down securely. Needless to say, tired was an understatement.
Suitably layered with warm clothes, we started up our bikes (two LML/Vespa's) and set off to Stellenbosch, where we'd be meeting Hein Gerber and his 9-year old son Daniel, before heading out to Wellington to meet the rest of the crew.
My bike, as yet unnamed and untested, had only 380km on the clock, while Chris' had 1800. Our furthest trip so far had been the 40 km of tarred road from Somerset West to Muizenburg.
The route to Cederberg, some 240 km each way, of which 58 km was gravel, would be a test drive to prepare us for our expedition through South Africa, and the Cape Town to Dublin guys for their expedition in 2013.
Words can't explain how cold it was on that bike with our inadequate helmets. Made for the city, the visors didn't even cover our noses, so the freezing wind had easy access.
Chilled to the bone, we made some quick adjustments at Hein's place, using balaclavas to cover up our nose and mouth.
Hein's scooter had been in pieces the night before - the engine had seized when the oil pump stopped working. Luckily, as the team's scooter mechanic, Hein was able to fix it, but we took it extra slow on our drive to Wellington, giving the engine a chance to be driven in.
Driving on a scooter presents a whole different view of life. As cars shot past, we enjoyed the panoramic views of wine farms softly lit up in the weak morning sun. The sky was overcast, threatening, but never delivering, rain, and we arrived at Hein's fathers place just minutes before our group.
As I made a slow U-turn to park the scooter, the weight of the bags unbalanced me, and my scooter gently, but insistently, toppled to its side, where it lay fatly like an upside-down beetle.
Unable to lift it on my own, I had to give out a loud yell for help. Fortunately, the saddle bags had prevented any damage, other than to my ego!
We'd met Chris Venter at the Getaway show and on an earlier visit to his home to pick his brain about expeditions and raising sponsorship. In fact, it was Chris' bike at Scootdr that initially inspired us to buy LML's, because surely they had to be tough, durable bikes if someone was intending to drive them through Africa!
Chris' girlfriend Tamlyn Porter, decked out in orange rain gear, jumped off the back of his bike to say hi. We met the team's emergency pilot and jokester, Ian Chamberlain, and his girlfriend Natasha Hollenbach, both wearing matching bright yellow rainsuits.
Peter, a fellow scooter lover, ex-Navy diver and businessman, joined our ranks on his 250cc Vepsa. With 5 white LMLs, my orange LML, and a Vespa, lined up, we looked ready to take on the world.
Standing outside talking, Chris (herewith called Chris Venter to prevent any confusion with Chris List), asked if we'd named our bikes. We told him they'd barely been driven, let alone christened. He wondered aloud what we could call them that would represent their colours and our personalities and off the top of his head, came up with the rather apt Butternut and Spud!
Hein's dad joined us, on another white LML, for the awe-inspiring drive over Bain's Kloof Pass, a scenic 30-km route over the mountain with serpentine-like twists and turns that was created by Scottish-born Andrew Geddes Bain (who had no formal engineering training) in 1853 to link Wellington to Ceres and Worcester.
Using convict labour, the narrow road was originally built for horse-drawn traffic, and overlooks the Witte River, which descends through a precipitous cleft in the mountains to a stretch of rapids, waterfalls and natural pools.
Interestingly, the pass is also the site of myth and lore. Many travellers claim to have seen ghosts along the pass, and it's been the site of many accidents.
According to History Web, Bain himself described the landscape as "repulsive and savagely grand" and stated: "for the first three miles we had nothing but crossing and re-crossing the river and climbing up the mural banks at the risks of our necks, so gloomy was this place, there is a perfect absence of animal life.
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the pass is known as one of the world's most spectacular, and dangerous roads, and for good reason. Driving in front, I took it slow and easy, going around the bends with care, catching the orange lights of the LML's in my rearview mirror.
I'd hate to drive that treacherous road in the rain, so count myself lucky that the weather held.
We stopped off to celebrate the completion of the death-defying drive though the pass at the rustic Calabash bush bar, a pub that was originally built in 1898 as a milking shed.
After lunch, we set out for the next phase of the journey, up into Ceres via Mitchell's pass.
We passed incredible rock formations contrasted by azure skies, all seven scooters driving single file through Prince Alfred's Hamlet, the gateway to Gydo Pass.
We followed the narrow road up through the mountains, replete with sweeping turns and no safety barriers, leading up to Op die Berg, a tiny town in the Koue Bokkeveld (cold goat country).
Indeed, the air in this pace became increasingly icy as we climbed up, our engines revving in unison.
We stopped to admire the views over Gydo Pass, the tiny village of Prince Alfred, colourful orchards, fields and dams set against the spectacular backdrop of the Ceres Mountains.
The final phase of our journey would be the hardest. Into the Cederberg Conservance and 58 km of gravel roads. I won't lie and say I wasn't scared. It would be my first time driving my barely tried and tested scooter on gravel, and I was hardly an offroad expert.
We stopped off just before the gravel began for a final chat and some words of advice from the more experienced members of the crew. They told us to just take it slow and watch out for the steep hill near the end.
We took off together, the Cape Town to Dublin guys setting a brisk pace ahead, with myself, Chris and Peter heading up the rear. I took it slow and steady, setting my own pace and watching the road in front of me with intense focus to avoid the worst of it.
Occasionally we'd we unable to avoid badly corrugated sections, but at my pace I was able to balance my bike by steering straight onwards, not braking or changing speed and keeping upright, bouncing vigourously like a puppet shaken on a string.
Dramatic sandstone and shale formations cut out of the landscape like sculptures left by the gods, leaving fynbos and karoo vegetation vying for attention.
We wove between tight bends in the road, slowly making our way up to the steep mountainous hill at the end of the road as the sun began to slowly set.
Ian and Natasha now behind us, I was driving up the hill in third gear when my engine began to lose speed. I quickly changed down to second gear, but it was too late.
The bike cut out. On a steep incline, with loose gravel, cutting out was my worst nightmare! I struggled to keep the bike steady, pushing down on my foot brake as hard as I could, while trying to restart the bike and pull off in first gear.
I cut out. I tried again. I cut out. I tried again. I took off but again the bike didn't have enough power to take me and my heavy load so I cut out. By this time, Ian was behind me to give me a push and I managed to pull off again, only to cut out. Clearly, I needed to practice this!
Chris then took over, managing to pull off with a bit of difficulty, driving my bike to a relatively straighter stretch so that I was able to take off again (with Ian giving me a supportive push from behind).
About 10 minutes later, still on the same perilous hill my bike cut out again. Clearly, I needed to open the throttle more! This time, after repeated tries to take off and continuous cutting out, I was, as they say in Afrikaans: "Gatvol" (thoroughly fed-up), exhausted and frustrated, so Hein kindly offered to drive my bike up to the top.
I then enjoyed a walk up, as by that time we were pretty close to the top, meeting up with the rest of the guys while Hein walked down to fetch his bike parked on the side.
Coincidentally, the very same guy we'd bought Chris' bike from roughly a week ago was there for a chat - he'd seen Chris on his way up the mountain!
Cruising down the hill at slow speed, using my foot brake to slow down, we finally arrived at the Cederburg Oasis, our home for the next two nights!
We met Gerrit, the owner of the backpackers, and he showed us where to camp. We drove our bikes down and then started unpacking, anxious to get settled before the sun went down and to relax and ease our aching backs.
Imagine our shock and horror when we unpack our tent, borrowed from my sister and her boyfriend, only to find out that it was missing its tent poles! We couldn't believe our eyes - surely this must be some mistake! Lugging a tent for 240 km on a tiny scooter, only to find out it was useless? Luckily,
Gerrit came to the rescue, and we were able to upgrade into one of the tented accommodations - a large standing tent with bed and mattress!
After a warm shower, we went to the dining area to relax around the fire, braaiing (barbequing) our potatoes and eating them with salad, raw macadamia nut cheese and baked beans, before heading off to get a good night's sleep under a sky scattered with stars.
I woke up feeling refreshed the next morning, ready for the next adventure. We planned to visit Stadsaal caves, renowned for the rock art paintings left by the San and Khoi who'd inhabited the area for centuries.
Gerrit was kind enough to draw us a map, and we headed out on our scooters to visit the caves. Chris Venter downplayed the difficulty of the drive, saying it was "easy peasy", but in actual fact it was quite challenging. Gravel roads, thick sand, somehow we managed to arrive without incident, loudly berating Chris for deceiving us!
A dramatic outcrop of orange rocks eroded over time into spectacular shapes, the centrepiece of Stadsaal is the cavernous Stadsaal Cave.
Translated as 'Town Hall Cave', Stadsaal was a gathering place for farmers and it is believed that Nationalist Party members met here to plan their 1948 victory which heralded the start of the apartheid era.
The graffiti seems to lend credence to this theory, with the names of Nationalist Party members inscribed on the wall, including that of Dr. D. F. Malan, the leader of the party at the time and the first Nationalist Prime Minister of South Africa. Others, such as PW Botha's name, have become pockmarked, allegedly by thrown rocks.
We clambered from rock to rock, discovering a labyrinthine network of caves, imaging living within them in many, many years ago.
We arrived at a viewpoint, taking some time to admire the views from above, including that of our scooters parked below.
Of course, the opportunity to pose with the dramatic scenery behind us couldn't be missed.
Ian however wasn't content with being on the rocks. Defying gravity was more his thing.
We then headed to the main attraction which is, of course, the famous Bushman-Elephant paintings dating back to a time when elephants freely roamed the area. These paintings vary in age between 300 and 6 000 years.
What's even more astonishing is that the Cederberg was completely underwater around 500 million years ago, and it was only with the massive upheavals of nature that the incredible rock formations of the Cederberg were revealed.
Today the area has World Heritage status as part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, and is collectively managed by the Cederberg Conservancy, a voluntary agreement between landowners to manage the environment in a sustainable manner.
On the way back, we encountered a stream of the side of the road that the guys wanted to practice driving through.
Hein went first (without Daniel for safety's sake), cruising across without incident.
Chris took a turn, as well as Ian and Natasha, while I begged off, unsure how I'd handle muddy waters, and frankly not that keen to find out.
We headed back to our campsite for lunch, which we made in front our tents, and lolled in the grass chatting and enjoying the sunshine.
Keen for another adventure, I started eyeing the mountains above, and suggested a hike to the summit.
Five of us set off - Chris, Ian, Natasha, Peter and myself, climbing up a steep incline with its treacherously loose gravel. Some of the fynbos, which has evolved over millions of years, had been ravaged by fire, while new growth spurted everywhere the eye could see.
The Cederberg is home to the Rooibos tea plant, my favourite tea, succulent Karoo plants and other species I'm unable to name that were dazzling in their diversity.
We crested the mountain and stopped to admire the views before and behind us.
However, Ian was not satisfied. There simply hadn't been enough adventure. Close behind us, another mountain proved a challenge too tempting to resist, and four of us decided to climb it before the sun set, while Peter headed back to camp.
Arriving at the top, we stood tall and proud, imagining ourselves conquerors. Chris took a picture of us attempting to look tough and fierce, but Ian kept looking like a pansy so we had to keep at it till we got it right.
The dying sun lit up the mountains, the valleys and the orchards below us in a splash of colour, a photographer's heaven. We were mountain folk now.
As the light diminished, we made our way swiftly back down, seeing two tiny scooters carrying two miniature people off on an adventure of their own. We reached the base of the mountain, and headed back to camp feeling a bit wobbly now that we were on a level surface!
Chris Venter and Hein had been testing their scooters in the thick sand near Gerrit's house. Still keen for more adventure, we decided to do the same.
Chris took Butternut for a spin with me on the back, while Ian and Natasha were on Lobola.
The thick sand proved no adversary, so we headed out to find more roads.
Nearly getting hit by a car on the way, we then drove up a gravel road into an orchard of naartjie (mandarin) trees.
As we walked through the orchard, Ian let out a yell. Something had been following him, something that looked like a machine gun. We ducked and dived through the orchard, thinking we were about to get shot!
However, on close inspection, we realised that it was some kind of gas-powered system (turret) that had actually been disconnected, and the only reason it was moving was because of the wind. Still, the timing was uncanny.
Arriving back at camp, Hein told us that it actually makes a loud noise to scare off baboons. I dare say we'd have been pretty scared to hear it too.
Another great evening passed with good food and good conversation and we went to bed early, knowing we'd be setting out early the next morning.
Waking up at the crack of dawn with Chris and Tamlyn's alarm, we got up and had breakfast before packing up. A last photo at the Oasis, then we set out to face the long road ahead.
Chris Venter, driving with Tamlyn at the back, kindly suggested that Chris and I go ahead, probably thinking it would be better if we set the pace so the rest of the group could keep up with us, and look out for us.
This time I was prepared for the gravel hill, driving up at high revs and feeling all together quite confident.
Clearly Chris was feeling quite capable, as we set a brisk pace. But after we'd driven nearly ¾ of the way, I made my first big mistake. Driving fast around a gravel bend, suddenly the road ahead was littered with deeply corrugated holes.
Bouncing around uncontrollably, jerked from side to side, I struggled to hold on to Butternut, and unfortunately failed. She veered sharply to the right and I knew I was going to go over.
I fell to the side and my bike smashed to the right. I leaped up to inspect the damage as Chris came running over to ask if I was allright. No doubt still in a state of shock, all I could think of was my scooter and the damage!
As the rest of the group came over to see what had happened, Hein reassured me that the bike would be ok, it'd just require a bit of panel beating.
I, on the other hand, was fine, just a bit bruised but certainly not broken. We took a few minutes to recover, even laughing about it, especially when Chris said my bike is no longer Butternut Squash, but Butternut Squashed!
Congratulating myself on buying the hardy LML, which despite it's fall had no serious damage whatsoever, we set off again- at a distinctly slower pace!
The road back, despite the fall, remained amazingly beautiful, and somehow, I appreciated it all the more.
Lunch at Calabash, driving over Bainskloof Pass again, and back in Wellington, we parted ways with a group of people who'd become friends.
Wiser, more experienced, we drove back home with a sense of accomplishment, of purpose. This was the first test. The next? A trip through the whole of South Africa.
Last, but certainly not least, I'd like to offer huge thanks to Chris Venter, Hein Gerber and Ian Chamberlain, for looking out for us rookies on this amazing adventure, for all the tips and tricks freely offered, and for your great sense of humour.
Join scooter addicts to find out about similar trips and to follow the Cape Town to Dublin by scooter expedition in 2013. They're doing the trip to support the Red Cross War Memorial's Children's Hospital, so get involved and sponsor them or help them raise funds by donating to this life-saving organisation.
Read about our 15,000 km scooter safari throughout Southern Africa in support of Food & Trees for Africa and promoting responsible adventure travel!
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