To ride from Joburg to Cape Town is a mind-numbing experience. But only if you follow the N1. Tyson Jopson made the journey epic, by (mostly) riding the back roads.
Distance, duration and riding pace
It took three days to ride the 1 730km route from Joburg to Cape Town. Day 1 was fast-paced – it’s all on the N1 from Joburg to Bloemfontein and important to get those kilometres under your belt so that you can hit the gravel to Philippolis (first stop) in the early afternoon. The second and third day are mostly on gravel and more leisurely. You will be on the road for the majority of all three days, though.
Why this route?
Joburg to Cape Town is always a schlepp. I hate the N1 with a burning passion and have always wanted to find an alternative route that gets me a little bit closer to the countryside. This route is packed with lots of gravel as well as stops in some of South Africa’s beautiful and overlooked towns – Philippolis, Graaff-Reinet, Nieu-Bethesda, Merweville, Sutherland are some examples.)
How the route runs
The route runs from Joburg to Cape Town mainly along back roads. The two overnight stops are Philippolis in the Free State and Beaufort West in the Western Cape. I’ve given a detailed breakdown of the directions per day below. What’s important to note is that I’ve ended each days near to the N1. I did this for those of you who want do the route in parts only, or for those of you who get gatvol of gravel (some sections are quite corrugated) and want to hop back on the N1 to cover ground.
Right, so here’s the route exactly as I did it.
Day 1 – Johannesburg to Philippolis
Take the N1 to Bloemfontein and then the R706 to Jagersfontein. Pass the R704 turn-off to Trompsburg and the R704 turn-off to Jagersfontein (it can be a little confusing because the road changes from the R706 to R704, despite the fact that you don’t turn at all). Just after the turn-off to Jagersfontein, the road becomes gravel. Continue straight for about 10 kilometres, then left at the T-Junction. It’s about 50 kilometres on gravel and then a short stretch on the tarred R717 to Philippolis.
Day 2 – Philippolis to Beaufort West
Take the R717 to Colesberg, then the N9 to Middelburg and the gravel R398 to Richmond. After 29 kilometres, turn left at the ‘Compassberg’ sign (note: not the Graaff-Reinet / Gordonville / Kompasberg sign that appears after 18 kilometres). You’ll eventually reach a large metal gate; open it and continue through the private nature reserve. After Doornberg Guest Farm, keep left to land in Nieu-Bethesda’s Martin Street. Take the gravel road and tar pass out of town and then turn right onto the N9 and down Paardekloof Pass to Graaff-Reinet past Camdeboo National Park and towards Aberdeen. Then take the R61 to Beaufort West. Turn right at the ‘Nelspoort’ sign after about 42 kilometres if you want to do the last bit of this route on proper fast gravel. Keep left after seven kilometres, cross the concrete bridge over the Kariega River and continue for about 100 kilometres to Beaufort West.
Day 3 – Beaufort-West to Cape Town
Take the N1 south for about 13 kilometres and then turn right onto gravel at the sign for Fraserburg. Continue for 100 kilometres to Merweville. Then head west on the gravel road to Sutherland. It’s about 100 kilometres through beautiful Karoo scenery and over Rammelkop Pass (you’ll need to open some farm gates along the way). Take the R354 out of Sutherland for about 40 kilometres, over Verlatenkloof Pass and then right onto the gravel R356. Continue for about 110 kilometres, then left onto the R355, which becomes the tar R46 to Ceres. Take the R46 out of Ceres, over Michell’s Pass, then left onto the R43 and right onto the R301 to Wellington and Bainskloof Pass. Then it’s down the magnificently winding pass into Wellington, out on the R44 and onto the N1 at Klapmuts to head south to Cape Town.
What kind of bike?
You’ll need an adventure bike and a tank with a decent range to do this trip (300km+). The gravel is fairly easy going but I’d recommend having some offroad experience. There are patches that can get a little sandy and if it rains, you might find yourself doing a few shallow water crossings on the section between Merweville and Sutherland and Sutherland and Ceres. I did the ride alone but I’d recommend going with a friend (even if you’re experienced) – large swathes of the route are very isolated and if you run into problems you could be out there for a long time with no help, especially if you do it over a weekend when there’s less farm-vehicle thoroughfare.
Points of interest along the way
Here’s a list of highlights in the order that you’ll reach them:
1. Oom Japie se Huis, Philippolis. A bar, bookshop and restaurant all rolled into one, this classic Karoo abode (note the curved corrugated roof) does a cracking Karoo lamb curry. From R95. Bookings essential. Tel: 0517737072.
2. Die Groenhuis Guest House, Philippolis. One of three restored Karoo townhouses on a quiet gravel road just out of town. You’ll get a good sunrise from the back stoep and an even better sunset from the front. Self-catering from R300 per person. Tel: 083 290 4269.
3. Highlands Windy Ridge Eureka Private Nature Reserve. This tract of land straddles the gravel road just west of Compassberg peak. It’s gated on either end but thoroughfare is permitted (just press the button at the gate) and you’ll spot eland, springbok, zebra and maybe even jackal along the way.
4. Die Waenhuis, Nieu-Bethesda. This artfully decorated restaurant is the definition of Karoo chic. Lamb burgers from R65. Tel: 082 497 2138
5. Valley of Desolation, Graaff-Reinet. Look out over the Karoo from the top of dolerite columns that extend up to 120 metres above the valley. Entrance from R35 per person. Tel: 049 892 3453
6. Karoo Gateway Guesthouse & Airport, Beaufort West. Neat guest house with a good bar, but the novelty of watching planes land over sundowners may wear off when you discover they also taxi at 04:00. Rooms from R495 per person. Tel: 023 414 3444
7. Die Spinwiel Antiques Shop and Museum, Beaufort-West. Delightfully quaint and packed with signs you’ll recall from yesteryear. Entrance is R10. Tel: 082 935 8110
8. Muller Handelaars, Merweville. Don’t expect tourist trinkets and fanfare. This is one of those salt-of-the-earth country stores there to service the locals, and that’s what makes it great. Coffee from R12. Tel: 023 501 4006.
9. The Blue Moon, Sutherland. A guest-house lunch stop with great boerekos and classic Karoo atmosphere. Get a table on the stoep and watch the windmill spin and squeak. Tel: 082 962 0416.
10. South African Astronomical Observatory, Sutherland. Time your arrival right and take a tour of the visitors’ centre (Monday to Saturday at 10.30am and 2.30pm), R60 per person. Tel: 023 571 2436.
11. Calabash Bush Pub, Bainskloof. The perfect place to grab some pub grub before heading down the pass. Meals from R75. Tel: 023 355 1844
I filled up in Bloemfontein, Colesberg, Middelburg, Nieu-Bethesda, Aberdeen, Beaufort West, Merweville, Sutherland, and Ceres. You might have enough range to not need all of the above, but I was travelling alone and still working the route out as I went so I made sure I filled up where I could.
Any dangers along the route?
Yes. As soon as you hit the first gravel stretch around Jagersfontein keep an eye out for animals, especially little steenbok that may dart into the road. Be aware of this on all the gravel stretches, in fact. Most pass farmlands or wild reserves. The last stretch before Nieu-Bethesda is through a private reserve (thoroughfare is allowed) and unfenced between the two big electric gates. It’s a magic ride but take it very slowly because, you know, you’re in a nature reserve. You don’t want to hurry anyway, there’s good game spotting.
Other than that, there are a few sharp bends in the gravel every now and again, so stay alert. There may also be some water crossings after heavy rains. The locals are lovely and always willing to chat or lend a hand. Just don’t be a doos.
Gear and equipment
I had an aluminium topbox and some soft luggage rolled up on the pillion seat. At first it wasn’t ideal because I had very little room to move, but on the long stretches the soft luggage sort of turned into a backrest. I’d hit the cruise control and lean back and relax. I also took a Tracks4Africa Travellers Atlas. It’s a little bulky, but was super helpful in plotting the route. You can get it here.
Almost ended in tears
I almost hit one of the steenbok that I mentioned above. They go all ‘deer in the headlights’ when you give them a fright and for some reason will make a beeline for the exact path you’re on. Other than that I didn’t close a water bottle before chucking it in my topbox. It opened somewhere in the Karoo and drowned my lunch. You can read about that here.
General advice about the route
Don’t dawdle too much. I did find myself running out of time on the second and third day. It’s mainly due to the fact that I covered a lot more distance than the above because I was trying to find the optimal route but still, be aware of time and get an early start so that you can ride nice and relaxed into the afternoon.
Any doctors or hospitals in the area?
I didn’t need any, thank goodness, but you’ll find hospitals with decent facilities in Bloemfontein, Graaff-Reinet and Beaufort West. There are smaller hospitals and medical centres in the quieter towns, but I don’t think they’ll be able to help you in a serious emergency. Always carry an ICE card (I have a sticker on my helmet) and a number for emergency services.
Tyson Jopson is an acclaimed South African photojournalist based in Stuttgart, Germany.