Days of Dust
South Africa is Adventure land. What locals take for granted is a big surprise for Europeans. As soon as you leave the big cities you enter the realm of sand, gravel and red clay. A fantastic discovery for the Austrian KTM couple Barbara and Tom on their KTM 1190 ADVENTURE R. This is a report of a week on knobblies, covering the scenic areas north of Johannesburg between the Waterberg range and the Blyde River Canyon.
For European enduro riders it is hard to believe, what a country like South Africa offers. At home they are an endangered species. As soon as one leaves tarmac to roll out into the bush, he is a criminal by law, very often even chased by hunters with their guns. So imagine that experience the other way around, when we turned onto one of the countless gravel roads covering the country, and the line of dust between the trees seems to endlessly wind up to the horizon. A door to offroad heaven had opened.
So our great time with the 1190 ADVENTURE R started immediately outside of Johannesburg, the gate to our one-week trip that should let us experience the highlights of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northwest Province – with a little help of our GPS it should sometimes become an encounter with the unexpected.
Some say, that with the GPS the real adventures have been vanished. I don´t agree. Just a few kilometers after leaving the main highways lies the well known area of Magaliesberg – impressive nature, nice lakes, fast roads. Suddenly the GPS – in the shortest distance mode – signs me to turn sharp left. But: no sign, no tarmac, no gravel. After 3 times passing the position, I discover what was once a track in the field. Ok, let´s take it.
My GPS – a magic little helper to get your daily surprise
After a few meters, the single track, perfectly shown on my GPS screen as a fat red line, winds up the hill on stones covered by grass. I wonder what hundreds of car drivers on the main road will think of me pushing a beast of a bike through the bush just a few meters away.
Anyway it starts to make real fun, feeling the suspension inhaling stones that sometimes become the size of soccer balls, sliding the bike into the right position with a twist of the wrist. Within seconds the civilized world is forgotten. I enjoy climbing up the ridge, hoping that this track, even taking some energy bars in the heat of the day, would never end. Enduro riders’ paradise!
But it should end. A “Beware of mines” sign makes me halt immediately. Trips to the West Sahara or the Balkans had taught me to take that serious. So I go back, only a little disappointed.
In the mood for more, I arrive in the small industrial town of Brits. From here a network of gravel roads invites to discover the Northwest Province. The goal for the day is the small village of Mohaswe in the Pilanesberg area, but I ignore the most direct roads, and make my way instead on a zigzag through the bush, covering a lot of wonderful kilometers through the scenery. First heading up northwest to Assen, then going back south to Motshikiri, along several idyllic dams, before finally getting into the right direction, right at the sunset. 270 k´s on the clock, most of them on dusty terrain, is a promising start. So I enjoy the big bottle of Lager that is offered to me in my nice little B&B.
Next day, same strategy: first going to Northam, a town, just 40 k´s north of Mohaswe straight on the R510. But following the GPS, I find myself on a local path, alongside the railroad, leading me directly into the next township. But a KTM on a single track brings a smile also to other people´s faces …
Trust the signs with the lion heads – they show the way to the wild
My goal is directly to the East, to the Botswana border, where I should pick up my wife.
Once in Northam I follow the signs for Dwaalboom. After some 60 kilometers on remote gravel roads, shortly before Dwaalboom, a nice little road leads through the bush. A pathetic feeling comes up, the music of “Out of Africa” starts to sound in my head. Real big emotions are coming up, when I see the signs that this is a lion area – guarded by fences – but anyway a lion area.
All the stories, that lions prefer to stroll on the main roads come immediately into my mind. Trusting on the sound of the V-Twin I open the throttle and speed up right to the place where we, my wife and I, really plan to see lions from a close distance: Madikwe Game Reserve, where we are invited to be guests of South African friends at the Etali Lodge.
After two wonderful days of game driving we return to the dust, taking the gravel highways from Deerdeport at the Botswana border to Thabazimbi, a smaller town on the edge of the Waterberg range.
With more than 100 horsepower coming out of the gigantic V-Twin, a setup that was born in 15 years of continuously winning the Dakar Rally: what prevents you from riding flat out on these endless roads through the bushveld?
Number 1, my wife is a factor of discipline and knowing that we have two kids at home is something that tames your right hand. Number 2, the fantastic variety of nature is that breathtaking that you would miss something. Number 3 is based on the advices of our South African friends: beware of the Kudus. You may like them on your plate, but you will not like them crashing in your bike.
North of Johannesburg – a gigantic Erzberg
For most of us the word mining area is not automatically causing a smile on your face. But coming from a country where the Erzberg race takes place on a mountain of iron you might get an idea that it could be different.
In our case the area between the two towns Thabazimbi on the R510 and Mokopane next to the N1, where mining is present all the time, defines a stage that offers a perfect playground for the big ADVENTURE. It´s the Waterberg region and it offers a variety of natural surface: rolling stones, riverbeds and rocky sections.
We start from the wonderful Marula Cottage Guest lodge outside Thabazimbi at the footrest of the Mountains. Just a few kilometers of tarmac, fences and checkpoints indicate a mining area. When you are right in front of the iconic rocks of the Waterberg range, this is the beginning of the winding road to Bakkers Pass at an altitude of about 1500 meters above sea level.
After around 40 kilometers comes a major junction that leads to Rankins Pass, a deserted former post of South African police. We leave it this time and take the sandy road northwards to Vaalwater. Crossing the escarpment we reach a plateau with large wheat fields, forests of coniferous trees (that reminded us of the north of Europe) and romantic little lakes.
Enjoying this variety of nature we reach the small village of Vaalwater. Nestled along the R33, it offers some cozy spots to eat and drink. It is 2pm and instead of keeping the 1190 on the move, we decide to enjoy a break the South African way – with a venison burger and a Windhoek Lager.
Very relaxed we continue the late afternoon with our trip. Again the Zigzag method of navigation leads us through the area. You can do nothing wrong between Vaalwater and the N1. Here lies an offroad territory with uncountable tracks. So just follow your instincts. With sunset we reach Mokopane, a city very much influenced by mining. It´s the end of the day shift and hundreds of workers make their way from the mine to their home. An impressive picture!
Kudus! This time not on the plate but in front of our bike
After a day of winding tarmac through the tense forests of the hills around Tzaneen – including the idyllic forest road to Debengeni Falls – we continue to one of the most spectacular landscapes on Planet Earth: the big escarpment of the Drakensberg Mountains with the famous places around Blyde River Canyon like the Three Rondavels or God´s Window – a land of falling lakes and iconic ridges.
We enter this well known area from the western side, from our overnight stay in a rural village close to Ohrigstad – again a village of miners. From here starts a fantastic track that could be seen as the highlight of our trip: Casper Nek Pass. A very small gravel road that begins in farmland, lead its way to the bush to finally wind up some steep ascents through a fantastic mountain area.
Here, for the first time, we feel the wilderness of South Africa. No fences to be seen. Instead big groups of baboons, some springboks and finally three gigantic Kudu females crossing our way in just a few meters distance. Again a broad hint, not to go as fast as your KTM allows you to go.
The Blyde River – a big name. Thousands of tourists see it as an impressive waterfall at the famous Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Few kilometers southwards, on the way to Graskop and Sabie, you follow a Blyde River that is no more than a creek running like a thin line through the valley. On a scenic gravel road we reach the picturesque town of Pilgrim’s Rest – today a biker´s attraction, where everybody likes to enjoy a burger and a beer.
Our plan for today is ambitious, but the weather is going to change fast in the mountains. An occurring thunderstorm forces us to ignore all the promising mountain tracks. Instead we switch to the 1190’s race mode, open the throttle and hurry up the road from Sabie to Lydenburg via Long Tom´s Pass – a highlight for asphalt bikers.
Now it´s time to finish our fantastic one-week-expedition. But before we take the highway to the Johannesburg area, we again, set our hopes in the GPS for some unexpected sidesteps. This time it seems that we know the trick. Between Loskop Dam and Middelburg we find a network of nice little farm roads that gently lead us on sandy tracks through a mild landscape. There are no wishes left …
We consciously enjoyed these last hours of offroad riding in South Africa, knowing that we have to return to a much more limited landscape in Europe. But the memories will keeps us going! The vision to come back and the knowledge that the right bike and our magic GPS will again lead us directly in the next days of dust.
Photos: Thomas Matzek
The authors: Barbara and Tom are devoted to offroad expeditions. On various KTM ADVENTURE models they have been travelling for 15 years to magic places like Sahara, Rub Al-Khali or Karoo.