Thursday, November 05, 2009

Spring ride on an old 1994 Honda Steed 400 ...

This is a post about a three day bike ride that I took from Cape Town to Beaufort West and back via the Swartberg and Rooiberg passes by the dirt roads of the Little Karoo.
I did the trip on my 1994 Honda Steed 400 in October 2009.

This goes to show that, as much as I admire Ewan McGregor and CharlieBoorman's beautiful big 1200cc BMWs, one doesn't have to have the biggest and best equipment to thoroughly enjoy ones self.

I've captioned day 1 and most of day 2 and I'll caption the remaining pictures over the next few evenings.

The pics and full story are also available as three FaceBook albums here:

Day 1;
Day 2;
Day 3.

At the entrance to the Hugenot Tunnel. The worst bit over, running the gauntlet of the N1 between Cape Town and Paarl.

The view back. Paarl and Paarl Rock.
I left before Gigi and Wendy in the car, knowing that they would travel faster in the car.

Along the Hex (Witch) River beyond Worcester.
Gigi, back at the filling station in Cape Town, had called the AA to help open the car's fuel cap! I had a one hour lead.

The BEAUTIFUL Hex River Valley. Andy, this one is for you. Those peaks way at the back, just left of the bike, are the ones we climbed - from the other side.
Gigi had sent the AA packing and had called the Volkswagen agency for assistance!

Looking back down the Hex River Valley.
The Volkswagen guys had shown Gigi a trick leaver to pull to open the fuel cap.
She was eventually on her way to fetch Wendy!

The Hex River Mountains with the Matroosberg on the right.

The Hex

Stopped for a break at at Matjiesfontein in the Karoo.

Gigi had collected Wendy and I had a four hour start by this time. So much for Gigi and Wendy's plan to stop at all the farm stalls along the way and also do some bird watching while I caught them up on the bike! Ha ha.

The Lord Milner Hotel at Matjiesfontein

The fire truck at Matjiesfontein

The hotel owns the old London bus which is used for taking sundowner cruises through the desert. Love it!

I resisted the temptation to dine at the Lairds Arms

The end of Matjiesfortein

Now to ride the looong road through Laingsburg and on to Beaufort West deep in the Karoo

The Witteberg range

Off across the Karoo

And on and on.
Still waaay ahead of Gigi and Wendy

Riding across the Karoo at 80 to 90 km/h is a truly Zen experience.
The traffic was minimal for this route


Two 10 - 15 minute stop/go stretches for road maintenance just outside Prince Albert Road.
Gigi and Wendy were catching up fast

On the bike I was able to ride right up to the front of the stop/go queue, almost.
I didn't bother to check out the expressions on the faces of the drivers of all the fast cars and trucks that had passed me in the last hour or two as I cruised by to the front of the queue - priceless :-)

I arrived at Karoo National Park, just outside Beaufort West, a full five minutes ahead of Gigi and Wendy. Whew :-)

Karoo National Park

We stayed in luxury in the National Park

The view from the cottage

More view from the cottage


Setting off from Karoo National Park on Sunday, the second day.
Note that the bike is still all shiny and clean!

Filled up with fuel in Beaufort West and headed due south for about 100km.
This area is in the rain-shadow of the Swartberg range over there on the horizon (use your imagination dammit!). Very dry and very flat. Not surprisingly I had my best fuel consumption of the trip on this stretch.

Another great cruising experience

Getting closer. You can now see the Swartberg range on the horizon.
I was hoping that if the bike behaved itself on a test stretch of dirt road I could ride over the Swartberg pass. Ever hopeful. This has been a dream of mine for years

I could have ridden all the way to Prince Albert on tar but wanted to find out how the bike handled a dirt road. This is the last pic of a clean bike!

The bike handled the dirt road with aplomb. Waaay better than I had dared hope for.
The secret was to vary ones speed depending on the road condition (sand, rocks or hard clay).
Avoid having to use the brakes, particularly the front one, by using the gears to decelerate to the appropriate speed before the obstacle.
Slow down and engage a lower gear before sandy patches, accelerating slowly through the sand

A signboard - just to prove I was there! Note that I had covered all the rear baggage with covers to protect against the dust

I had a friend who was severely injured near here.
He was driving at night with his family in his BMW when he hit a Kudu which came over the bonnet and through the windscreen.

Some of the scenery was stunning.
Due to the bike running so well and the gorgeous weather, I was starting a total emotional 'high' which lasted right through the next day until I hit the tar roads again in the afternoon

The road to Prince Albert, close to the start of the Swartberg Pass

Approaching a slightly dubious river crossing!
I love roads where this type of signage really means something.
(It could have a really deep meaning in the rainy season)

After a burger and Sprite in Prince Albert I was off to try the pass.
The Burger, out of interest was served to me by a returning resident who had been a car designer for Chrysler in Detroit.
He had taken an early retirement package and followed his daughter and her boyfriend to Prince Albert - where apparently he had his arm twisted gently by a local estate agent and bought the local 'Take Away' joint

The start of the Swartberg Pass
Rocks glorious rocks

These layers of sandstone were laid down horizontally under the ocean.
Just look at them now!

Totally magnificent scenery

Fantastically folded sandstones form the Swartberg (Black Mountain) range

Up and up we go.
Riding very gently and treating self and the machinery with due care. By now I knew that this bike would probably take me anywhere I wanted to go :-)

The folded sandstone is spectacular but also look at the wonderfully engineered stone walling supporting much of the road

One of the spectacular switchback sections of the Swartberg pass.
Look at all that hand laid stone work

Another view of the switchback section

Looking back

Looking doooown and back to where I'd just ridden up

See the small bus full of tourists down there.
They past me earlier and got quite excited about seeing me on the bike

Even further back down the road

And even further back

Looking back again. The switchback is beyond the furthest section of visible road.
It drops into the gorge beyond

Looking forward for a change.
The turnoff right to Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) is just right of centre.
The top of the Swartberg Pass is high on the ridge on the extreme left of the photo.
More info about Gamkaskloof here:

Looking up towards the top of the Swartberg Pass.
On the ridge, just left of centre.

To ride down to Gamkaskloof or not?
That was the BIG question at 15h30 on 4 October 2009.
I had camping gear and food with me. mmmmmm?

Hell yes, why not!

It was a life's ambition to visit Gamkaskloof and I've never had the vehicle to do it - till now

The road was decidedly worse than the Swartberg Pass itself.
It doesn't look that bad here but was much rockier in parts.

After an hour's tough riding I came across this view. It was clear that I still had a very long way to go.
Look carefully just above the most obvious piece of road and see the zigzag road disappearing over the next ridge way in the distance. Gamkaskloof camp site and "village" was down into the next valley even beyond that :-(
Decisions, decisions. This was tough on me, the bike, the loaded panniers and I realised that if I carried on then it was going to be an extremely long and tough day getting all the way back to Cape Town the next day.
So very reluctantly I turned the Steed around and headed back to the Pass itself. Another day I'll leave early in the morning, with a light load, from Oudtshoorn or Prince Albert and go all the way down.

Riding out of Gamkaskloof towards the Swartberg Pass

Nice little challenge to cross the stream with a very loose gravelly bed.
I did - without getting my feet wet :-)

Quite rocky in places

Back on the Swartberg Pass and heading for the top.
Stopped to photograph two Grey Rhebuck (Vaalribbok).
See them just beyond the bare earth.

Another interesting switchback section of the Swartberg Pass just before the top.
The old forester's house is now used as a hiking hut

On the flats, beyond the hiking hut, hidden by the rocky knoll, is the turnoff to Gamkaspoort

More view close to the top of Swartberg Pass

Close to the top of the Swartberg Pass

Just over the top of the Swartberg Pass looking down the southern side over the Little Karoo

The top of the Swartberg pass looking North

The old 1994 Honda Steed 400 performed flawlessly

Descending the southern slopes of the Swartberg on the Swartberg pass

Skelmdraai ! Says it all.

I see Skelm variously translated as rouge, ruff neck, skally wag, rascal etc.
The most accurate definition I came across was "little shit" :-)
"Draai" is bend.

Therefore "shit little bend" OK ;-)

Post Skelmdraai.

Beautiful scenery.

There were actually beautiful flowers throughout the trip both in the karoo and fynbos areas.

And then we hit the tar road at the bottom of the Swartberg Pass

Honda Steed meets Dromedary.

A local farm close to the Cango Caves offers camel rides.

These beasties must feel quite at home in the Little Karoo.
I was clever enough (having worked in a zoo in my early years) not to try and pet them, however friendly they appeared.
Camels got teeth - therefore camels bite!

Camping at Cango Mountain Resort, between Cango Caves and Oudtshoorn, 20km from Oudtshoorn.

R120 for a campsite (without electricity), a good hot bath and soft green lawn near a running stream.


Day three dawns.

A lovely sunny morning at the Cango Mountain Resort.
Pack up and off we go.

We have ideas to make up for yesterday's disappointment about not getting all the way down to Gamkaskloof .. mmmmm ;-)

The 20km drive in to Oudtshoorn starts with the very pretty Schoemanspoort.

The attractive pink bush is the Klapperbos or Chinese Lantern bush.


Stopped briefly in Oudtshoorn to buy some chain lube, fill up and get out of there.

Could have had a Wimpy sunshine breakfast but ate well back at camp and was keen to get on the road.

Down the concrete road to Calitzdorp Spa.

Heart of ostrich farming country.

The ostriches kept their distance from my Steed.

Actually they were expecting me to come in and top up their feeding trough - greedy self centered fowl!

Short Left - definitely.

My next treat was to tackle the Rooiberg (Red Mountain) Pass between Gamkasberg and Rooiberg "direct" to Vanwyksdorp.

I've only done this pass years ago, once, in the opposite direction, and always wanted to come back - grinnnn

One of the numerous reserves in the area.

Gamkasberg to the left (east) is home to the very rare Cape Mountain Zebra.

Another spectacular switchback road up the Rooiberg.

More exquisitely made road and hand laid stone walling.

Absolutely loving it.

Riding gently and soaking up the isolation.

This pass by far more isolated and less used than the Swartberg Pass and all the more enticing for just that.

Only passed two vehicles on the whole pass, one in each direction

Grrrrrreat :-)

Up towards the top the road is less steep and magnificent vistas unfold.

There may as well not be another soul on the planet.

Rooiberg in the background.

Karoid vegetation gives way to rhenosterveld and then mountain fynbos higher up

Looking back Northeast towards the Swartberg

The Swartberg towards the North

Seweweekspiek, the highest peak in the Western Cape, with its head in the clouds.

I've been on that peak some years ago.
On that clear day we could see from the Langeberg at Montague to the escarpment above Beaufort West.

To the right (East) of Seweweekspiek is the gorge forming the Seweweekspoort. That's another easy ride someday, including the route down Bosluiskloof (bush tick gorge!) Pass to Gamkapoort Dam. (Oh if I just had more time!)

But I had to keep going through to Cape Town by the end of the day.

So no rest unfortunately.

At the top of the pass is a lay by with a pile of stones, an interesting Rhus tree and a picnic table and chairs.

Gamka's Mountain Prayer Mound

According to anecdote these stones were gathered together in the 19th century by devout travelers that prayed here and gave thanks for a safe crossing and on every such occasion added a stone to the pile.

The "Raportryerskorps" of Calitzdorp in colaboration with the National Monuments Commission maintains this.

This memorial plaque was unveiled on the 10th October 1984 by Dr H.M.J. Van Rensburg, MP of Mossel Bay.

Of course I also added a small stone to the mound.

The Rhus (karee) tree.

Reminds me a bit of the old magic tree in Kirstenbosch.

Probably first hollowed out by game seeking shade.

The stone pile is just to the right of the tree.

And now continuing south.

Down we go into the Little Karoo, with the Langeberg (Long Mountains) on the horison.

On the other side of the Langeberg, the coastal plain, near Riversdale, and the southern Indian ocean beyond.

The descent from isolation to isolation - peace

Riding very gently downward - no rush.

Just soak it all in.

Gently - don't stress the machinery.

Really don't want to break down or puncture here.

Help is a long way off.

A homestead in view.

Is this THE gate to "civilization", whatever that may purport to be?

Still quite a long ride to Vanwyksdorp.

When I was there last the sign on the door of the bank read something like, "Open Tuesdays and Fridays, 10h00 to 13h00, first and third week of the month."

That is the pace I'd like to keep forever.

Still the magnificent road unwinds before me.

It was getting warmer now and I was forced to strip off the heavy riding clothes

Vanwyksdorp came and went.

Then it was southwards deep into the koppies (rocky hills) of the Little Karoo, turning westwards just north of the Langeberge.

The riding was easier now. The breeze was warm and I felt total freedom cruising through the desert. Elated at completing the Swartberg and Rooiberg passes and looking forward to cruising the totally vehicle free back roads.

I had a grin right around my face for the next couple of hours riding the back roads to Barrydale.

This area is in the rainshadow of the Langeberg and only has about 150mm rain per annum.

The rocky hills are very "lunar".

Red spring flowers even right out here in the rain shadow area

Approachng the north slopes of the Langeberg.

The grey clouds "loering" over the mountains indicated a cold front passing by the coastal plain beyond.

That area has been through a very dry period and needed the rain. I knew that it wasn't going to rain on my parade though.

And off westwards, north of the Langeberg heading through Muiskraal and Brandrivier.

Find those on Google Earth or a map if you can!

Stopped for a break at one of the famous quartz patches of the Little karoo.

This is where all those endemic and rare succulent plants grow. So beloved of unscrupulous succulent collectors.

Reminded me of the succulent poachers that were caught by my colleagues in CapeNature. Their camera contained all the evidence necessary of their collecting exploits and the exact localities - ag shame, how dumb could they have been?

The same happened to a well known curator of one of the big German botanical gardens. He was caught collecting without the necessary permits - domkopf!

Cruising through the great peacefulness.

Really interesting countryside.

A mixture of renosterveld and karoid vegetation.

My trusty Steed

My dusty Steed.

Exceeded all expectations on the dirt roads.

Here we get back towards civilization again.

Still far from the winelands proper - but getting there.

There were quite a few (at least 6) snakes run over on the road in the previous 10km or so.

Mainly Cape Cobras and Puff Adders

And back to the tar road between Ladismith and Barrydale.

Only about 10km from Barrydale.

Looking back up the tar road towards Ladismith.

I could have ridden all the way from Oudtshoorn on that tar road - but what would I have missed, wow.

The very pretty little town of Barrydale. at about 14h00.

In Barrydale I took a break, ate a lovely clay oven baked pizza and cappuccino.
The wind was howling along the Langeberg from the West - ahead.

In an ideal world I would have spent the night here, either camping or in one of numerous lovely guest houses in the village. But I had to face the trip back to Cape Town to be at work on the following day.

When I retire in about 18 months I'll do the same trip, and more, over at least 10 days - yeah!

Tradouw Pass, over the Langeberg, which starts off in the kloof behind is one of the most picturesque and well finished passes in the country. The engineers that finished off that pass really took pride in their work. Beautifully cobbled road verges and drainage channels and lovely stone walling and stopping points.

View from Op Die Tradouw looking back towards Barrydale.

By now the wind was really howling. You can see it whipping up the water on the dam and blowing the cloud over the mountain.

Wind or no wind the Steed just kept on going.

All I had to do was hang on!

Lovely roads on a windless day but quite a battle in the wind after three hard day's riding.

I just had to use my yoga training to relax all those taught muscles as I rode along.

Rider's eye view

Magnificent Cogmanskloof just beyond Montague.

This is the area where Chris and Nic go climbing regularly. I wonder why?

The road tunnel at Cogmanskloof with the old fort above guarding the route through the gorge

And onward against the wind to Worcester

Magnificent mountains above Worcester.

Filled up with fuel for the last time at Rawsonville near here.

More mountains near Worcester.

Lot's of pics of mountains - I needed a good break after the long ride against the wind.

After filling up at Rawsonville I turned southwards on to the N1, the main road between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Into the setting sun.

I gave the toll road through the new tunnel a miss and rode over the top of Du Toit's Kloof Pass through the old tunnel pictured here.

I had to slow down and focus carefully going through the old unlit tunnel. Didn't want to hit any of those huge tire treads that make a habit detaching themselves from truck tires.

Lovely views of the mountains in the setting sun

View from the top of Du Toit's Kloof Pass over Paarl.

Now just to ride the gauntlet of the mad 70km of traffic on the freeway between Paarl and Cape Town. But I took a deep breath and enjoyed the quiet descent of the pass in the setting sun first.

Saw a big troupe of baboons foraging on the way down.

I paused briefly on the freeway to capture this lovely sunset.

Table Mountain hiding under the cloud on the left.

A passing motorcyclist unexpectedly stopped and rode back up the shoulder of the road.

He warned me not to linger as there had been lots of bike hijackings on that streatch of road recently.

OK - I was definitely back in "civilization" - yuck!

Home about 20h00!

You can see by the huge grin on my face how much I had enjoyed the last three days, even though I was dog tired.

Roll on retirement!


Unknown said...

now I've read that the urge to get a bike again is back!

nice one Dennis - the captions and photos seem to be out of synch though?

I sicced a Twitter contact onto you to source wood for turning - hope you don;t mind.


Dennis Laidler said...

Is that Dave Gale?
I did notice that the captions and pics were out of sync but now seem to have rectified themselves. I hope that it was just a temporary glitch

Theuns Kellerman said...

awesome, got a Steed myself, i'll love it till it's all bits and pieces.

TR said...

Very nice ride!

Anonymous said...

hello Dennis
I'm Jonathan from Venezuela (far far away from you he he). I have a 1997 Steed 400. Reading all your post was great !!!. Very good pictures and good captions too.
I was looking for steed-experienced rides but after reading your's, there is no more to search. You do a 3 days ride on diferents surfaces and wheather ( i read no rain, but Aus is like that eh?) I hope, some day, do some ride like you do or even longer.
Do you have the Steed owner manual o some technical documentation?
I got nothing but the Shadow 600 docs.
My e-mail is

sorry if I made some english writen misteken. But i speak spanish

Dennis Laidler said...

Hi Jonathan. Thanks for your nice comments. Your English is excellent. I wish I could speak Spanish as well. Unfortunately I don't have any documentation for the Steed 400. I also heard that the Shadow 600 documentation is very close though. Luckily I have a good motorcycle dealer nearby who service my bike well.

Ratna Das said...