There's a stretch of uninterrupted gravel road between the towns of Ceres and Calvinia which is over 255km long.
Check a map of South Africa and you'll find plenty of empty space. Though none quite as empty as an area called the Karoo. The region starts as semi-desert in the Western Cape with the edge of it beginning only a couple of hours from Cape Town's bustling seafronts. The area then expands up and over the provincial border becoming much drier and hotter. The kind of place you need to plan for, if you intend surviving.
The Tankwa Karoo National Park sits smack in the middle of this dusty, golden-shrubbed land where the only thing more scarce than water is cell phone reception. It's recommended that riders use a GPS device since there's absolutely no cell phone reception and it's worth noting that that stretch of gravel road mentioned earlier also hasn't a single petrol station along it, so any rescuing needed could be slow. It's so distant from civilisation that it's intense darkness and radio wave-free skies make it the perfect place for the South African Large Telescope (SALT) set in Sutherland.
Most of the time we knew where we were headed. It's good to have markers to hit on the way because it helps keep track of daylight hours which can easily catch you out. As soon as the sun drops, temperatures go quickly with it and cycling without proper lamps score low on the fun index when covering uneven or stoney roads.
Yep, we got caught out the first night and to save on battery life we followed in single file as one rider in front with headlight, carved the route. It was so slow getting back to camp in the dark that by the time we arrived, cooking a decent meal wasn't really worthwhile. That night we cut our losses, snacked and went to sleep with our fresh new lesson learned for day 2.
There really isn't anything quite as good as riding long roads with no traffic on them. Just the sound of your own breath and your own thoughts. The desert's cathartic effects take riders through emotional and geographic peaks and valleys, so best pick your fellow riders well because this kind of solitude does weird things to city slickers.
There are many ways of experiencing open spaces like this on a bike; and this time we chose to use a central base camp - each day was it's own adventure, riding out in different directions. It meant we could ride faster with no frame bags to weigh us down and worry about packing. There was less planning involved and more time to enjoy those "TOTO" moments. You know, when you notice a group of gazelle running along side you or speeding past a troop of baboons on the road before they smell your food.
The best rides were discovering something new or unexpected. Photo's never really do the experience justice but we took some chances on routes that either got us somewhere surprising and beautiful or didn't work out at all. Somehow it was never anything in between. It became pretty obvious that you can get almost anywhere on a gravel tire and if you hit a spot that's too hard - its probably meant for something with a petrol engine anyway.
Our last day was another scorcher and we left later in the morning than planned. Riding through the heat of the day we took it pretty easy by sticking to wider, flatter roads until the early evening when we turned and scrambled a fast few hundred meters up a loose rock path to find the perfect final sunset of the trip. It was the perfect spot to reflect on a beautifully tough experience and equally our building urge to return as soon as possible.