Tour Report: To the Hell and back with Zontes

Bike Routes, Zontes South Africa and eleven adventure bikers rode from the Cape to the Hell, to see if the 310Ts adventure bikes can handle long-distance highway cruising followed by rough-road riding. Story by Justus Visagie. Pictures by Desmond Louw.

It’s 10:15 on a stormy Cape morning in October, and I have a choice to make. Do I risk having my riding party blown off the coastal road into False Bay, or have them blown off the towering Sir Lowry’s Pass? I’m facing this little dilemma as I’m about to lead the group from Somerset West to a farm near Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo, about four hours away. Ultimately, I want to lead them to The Hell. While they’re still alive.

One of the bikes in our group, a black Zontes 310T, has just completed a journey from Gauteng to Cape Town via Verneukpan. (Read the article in Afrikaans on Maroela Media.) The Hell would be another feather in its cap, before it competes in the Cape Adventure Bike Challenge.

Young dog, new tricks

The Zontes 310T does not have the heritage of established adventure models that have imprinted their tread patterns all over the country. Yet, early adopters of the 310T are ticking off South Africa’s iconic adventure destinations one by one. Gamkaskloof, if not ‘conquered’ by a Zontes before, was about to be another one done and dusted.

A rider and his pillion on a Zontes 310T fitted with panniers
The Zontes 310T performed well as a passenger carrier, despite its modest engine displacement.

Six of us are riding Zontes bikes, with the rest a mix of GS BMWs. The two Zontes 310X models, on-road touring bikes with fairings, would only ride to Kruisrivier farm, while the four 310Ts will go all the way to the shop and restaurant in The Hell. But first, we have to deal with a volatile Cape storm. I decide to risk the 5 km of Sir Lowry’s Pass, instead of 23 km along the Gordon’s Bay-Rooiels coastal road, with a much longer period of exposure to the infamous Cape Doctor.

Just 8 km beyond our descent of the pass, we pull in at the Orchard Farm Stall near Grabouw. I want to make sure my flock landed safely. It’s still raining softly, but the riders are in good spirits. Some do present the symptoms of giddiness and accelerated speech, caused by the adrenaline spike of a wet and blustery Sir Lowry’s.

Meditations on rain

We ride through the month-end bustle of downtown Grabouw and the rain lets up a little, giving me false hope. Little did I know this was to be the pattern for this day and the next. “Craving leads to misery,” a Buddhist teacher told me often enough. My excuse was that it wasn’t about me, but that I wanted the tour to be perfect for the other riders – as if I have any say in the weather’s mood.

From Grabouw we head north and north-east on the R321, negotiate a scenic hair-pin bend, pass Vyeboom, and then have the Theewaterskloof dam almost lapping at our wheels, sooner than we expected. The rain pauses as we park on the bridge of the overflowing dam, and the clouds plan their next offensive. We ride through Villiersdorp, where I recognise the house my grandparents occupied in the 1980s.

Pumpkins and Roses

Half an hour on the R45 takes us to Aan de Doorns wine estate, where we do not stop for fortified wine, but turn right on a shortcut to the R60 and Die Pampoenstalletjie. It’s not raining now and we enjoy moerkoffie and rusks, to keep us going through Ashton and on to Montagu’s Rambling Rose restaurant, our lunch stop.

Our four large tables are close to a tall and square wood-burning stove. It has a flat-top surface which is too hot to leave a pair of gloves to dry, unless you turn them over regularly, braai style. Which we proceed to do.

We’re on the much-loved R62 now, riding towards Calitzdorp, with the Langeberg to the south. We zip through Barrydale and then stop at Ronnie’s Sex Shop for the agreed-on one beer per rider. Beyond the pub lies a long stretch of road with dramatic scenery. It feels as if I’m in a Western, scanning the hills for a potential ambush. We’re hit by fiery beams of yellow sunlight and the occasional bug – nothing else. In Ladismith we fill up the bikes and jerrycans.

A BMW 1200 GS and a Zontes 310 T on a wet gravel road
The gravel road to Kruisrivier was, of course, wet and muddy.

Mud stew for thirteen

The wet weather had prepared a slippery mud stew for us along the 19km of untarred road between Kruisrivier farm and the R62 that we now leave behind. To ensure we’re not enjoying the last miles too much, the rain had started too. At last a crackling fire welcomes six Zontes 310s, four BMWs and thirteen damp riders to Kruisrivier.

The conditions didn’t change overnight, but after a hot and meaty breakfast I feel strong enough to take on Tolkien’s Mount Doom, never mind the Swartberg pass. The tread on the Zontes 310T’s tyres strikes a balance between tar and gravel use. I’m longing for an aggressive set of knobblies to deal with the mud, that has the consistency of a fresh cow pat. But to my surprise, the wheels run true. We do, however, lose two comrades on a BMW R 1200 GS early on, probably because the tyres on the big easy are road-biased. It’s a low-speed fall, and the couple (in their 40s) aren’t injured. Neither is the bike, but they decide not to push their luck, choosing instead to relax at the farm.

Close-up detail of an orange-coloured Zontes 310T
“Super” might be a optimistic, but it’s certainly excellent. Highlights are mid-range torque, engine refinement and good build quality.

The rain that fell on the Swartberg pass had run off in rivulets, without washing away the surface or creating ruts. The torquey nature of the 310 engine makes slow climbs easy, while not overwhelming the rear wheel to cause a loss of traction. The rear wheel’s grip comes as a pleasant surprise, and the little bike chugs deftly up the pass, like a true thumper. The rain keeps falling, but not hard. I have my visor open, to keep it from fogging up. I can drink the pure raindrops and sometimes they sting my eyes.

We encounter a friendly Capetonian couple in a white Land Rover Defender. “It’s better on the other side!” the man says. Well it isn’t, I tell myself as we ride down the mountain’s northern slopes. But the rain is dialled back a bit, making this fair-weather biker a bit less miserable. At last we turn left on the road to The Hell.

A man in a high-vis rain jacket rounding a corner on his BMW F850GS Adventure
The road to Hell was dry, but the skies were still ominous.

Here Hell is dry

The rain stops. It’s still cloudy, but the sky opens to a very pale blue, as we ride west towards Gamkaskloof. At last I can let the reins slip a bit and the lava-coloured bike picks up speed, its rear tyre gripping well on the damp road. I go from agony to ecstasy in 15 minutes.

Not expecting rain today, I had ditched my rain gear. The air rushing over me does a fine job of drying my soaked riding gear… only to be drenched again by three water crossings, that are no challenge for the Zontes. But now I don’t care, knowing the rising temperature, sun and air will have it dry again in minutes.

Water splashing up over two motorcyclists on a BMW R1200GS
Plenty of spa experiences were available.

The group splits up and every person now rides at his own pace, stopping for photos or just mesmerised by the scenery.

I’ve only been in The Hell once before, but I recognise the last turn to the left before the kloof is revealed, together with the picture-perfect Elands pass that will lead us to the old houses and the shop. Down in the valley we ride the last kilometres, flanked by skeletons of burnt trees, testament to the fire that raged here in December 2019. All that riding in the rain wore us out, and two riders proceed two enjoy a cat nap on the lush green grass by the restaurant.

The weather holds as we retrace our steps to the R328 that links Prince Albert and the Swartberg pass. Then I notice puddles on the road and murky, dove gray clouds in the distance. As if in anticipation of my darkening mood, a rainbow reveals itself. We head south. As the bikes climb up the pass, it feels as if we’re entering a black hole.

Zontes 310T motorcycles on a dark and misty Swartberg pass
Mordor really isn’t as bad as Tolkien made it out to be.

Mount Doom again

It’s dark as night. The Medic Alert dog tag round my neck becomes the ring Frodo has to toss into the fires of Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. A sliding rear wheel yanks me back into consciousness as I almost career into a low grassy bank on the wrong side of the road. But we’ve safely descended and it wouldn’t have been a launch into oblivion. I catch the slide and feel pleased with myself. We rode to Hell and back in difficult conditions, and the 310Ts proved themselves. Next stop: the Cederberg.

The mud-covered engine of a Zontes 310T
The 310T proved to be a reliable adventure bike, handling everything we threw at it.

End notes

At 1.96m I’m too tall for the 310T, but its low weight doesn’t exaggerate the rider’s mistakes the way heavy bikes can. This also helped when I pulled on the front brake (on gravel) where a heavier bike would have required front and rear braking to trim its speed safely. Instead of the front tyre just washing out from under me in these instances, the bike simply scrubbed off speed while steering left or right. The 310T does have ABS. It’s not switchable, but this didn’t bother me. The front brake has good feel, and pulling it on gravel doesn’t upset the bike, even in corners. Mind you, I avoided hard braking in corners.

The 310T wears mixed-use CST Radial tyres on 17” alloy wheels. The tyres and the wheels performed flawlessly. More aggressive tyres for the 310T are available from Continental and Michelin.

For a detailed, must-read description of the road to The Hell, visit http://bit.ly/gamkaskloof.

Four Zontes 310T bikes and their riders, with a Cape Nature sign in the background
All four Zontes 310T bikes got out alive.
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