Rae Trew-Browne, Bas Rotgans and Max Riese embark on an adventure to cycle the route of “The Rhino Run”, an unsupported bikepacking race. Slowly but surely, they started realizing that they were falling back on their old habits, and that there is no need to rush when you’re not in a race. Not only the riders starting slowing down, but even to the local film crew, Stephen and Carel Chris “CC”, the journey becomes an eye-opening experience.
What actually is “The Rhino Run”?
With a length of approximately 2800km and a challenging 27000m of climbing, this ultra unsupported off-road cycling race was supposed to have its inaugural edition in 2020, due to the pandemic it just hasn’t happened yet. It’s the brainchild of the legendary Curve Cycling crew. Mainly Jesse Carlsson and Ryan “Rhino” Flinn, two hard-as-nails riders that have both ridden and created a few of the hardest races in the world. You guessed it: Bas Rotgans and I (Max Riese) had already signed on for the 2020 edition, when it was first announced.
No race, but flight Tickets
Well, even in 2021 the race turned out to be cancelled with the race directors still being stuck in Australia. Bas and I already had our tickets. Theoretically, we could have them moved until a year later. But we were were itching to ride the route!
Bas reached out to local Cape-Town athlete Rae Trew-Browne if he wanted to join us in riding the route. As it turned out he had ridden quite a few parts of the route already. Different sections in different orders, sometimes in the other direction. No hardcore racing, we just try and ride it as far as we could go. Rae was keen as soon as we asked him!
Of course we had to document our journey, so we got in touch with two locals, Stephen Rheeder and Carel Chris “CC” Van Dyk as our film crew. And what a crew it was!
To the startline!
We arrived in Cape Town with a warm welcome, being picked up by our new friends. You can say what you want about social media, but creating these kind of connections thousands of kilometers away can only be a good thing!
We built up our bikes in the hotel room and had dinner with the crew, to have some beers and get even more stoked on our upcoming trip. The following morning it was time for the long drive to Plettenberg Bay. The town where our journey along the route of the Rhino Run began. A beautiful small town right at the ocean. Our South African friends told us they travel here often for vacation. But never in this time of the year yet, because they deemed it “too cold”. We however regarded this early South African spring as a very nice escape from the gloomy fall weather in Europe.
Some last-minute adjustments and preparation to our bikes and kit. Ortlieb had provided us with their new QR saddle bag prototypes, to keep our luggage safe and sound on corrugated South African gravel roads. Each of us had different comments and suggestions on what would be the best way to mount and pack up the bags. After a nice dinner and beers we sunk into the comfort of our hotelbeds, fired up about the chance to be riding our bikes in the morning.
Finally starting to ride
We were off! Early in the morning we grabbed a quick coffee and some pastries before lining up at the roundabout that is supposed to be the startline of The Rhino Run. It wasn’t a race, but I could still tell that we were all a bit nervous. Even CC and Stephen that followed us in the car were a bit more silent then before.
All of that was gone the moment we rolled out of town. It didn’t take long until my Wahoo showed temperatures over thirty degrees Celsius. Luckily we left the road for some dirt roads shaded by trees! All three of us were stoked and happy to be riding in this incredible landscape. There was only one small shop for resupply on the way to Knysna. Five minutes after we raided it for some cold Cokes, the owners left. Seemed like we were lucky with our timing. We decided to call it a day in Knysna, unsure if we were stocked well enough for the next long stretch without very much resupply.
7 Passes Road
Leaving Knysne via a bridge and onto the first challenging section. The “Seven Passes Road” is exactly what the name suggests, seven passes. Mostly varying from smooth to some rough gravel, but also offering some “Tar” sections. Southern Africans don’t call it asphalt, tarmac, or paved. And that was only the beginning of a lot of peculiarities that we were discovering about South African English. “AG”, we will tell you about some of them later on.
The seven passes flew by and we had a blast pushing ourselves and our bikes up each one of them. A solitary ‘bottle shop’ offered some much needed resupply, but we already the resupply points were getting fewer and further apart. And The Rhino Run had a surprise pass for us after the previous seven: Montagu Pass was supposed to be our icing on the cake for the day. And a big cake it was! Also the weather was changing a bit. The light rain could have been a blessing, even offering some refreshment after the relentless heat the day before.
But it was a bit more persistent, and the rain and fog made the crossing over the pass an epic memory. Rough and destroyed in parts, winding up into the void in the clouds. And close to the top a train track on a bridge seemed to come out of nowhere. We didn’t waste too much time on the cold and wet pass and descended to where we could see it was better weather.
Thorny Creek Brewery
From the pass the landscape changed dramatically. Gone were the high trees, leaving only lower bushes that seemed tougher. The dirt roads were drier and more dusty. And we had an amazing tailwind blasting us along on these straights. About 15 kilometers from Oudtshoorn we ran into a sign that said “brewery”. It had been a long day, and we wouldn’t mind a cold one in this landscape. The ‘Closed’ sign at the gate however shut us down. Still Rob, the owner, came out and had a chat with us. Hearing where we had started in the morning, he was gracious enough to offer us a beer and a lovely story of how he had opened his brewery out here. Starting out of sheer curiosity for the brewing process. Word got around about the quality of his beer, so people just kept coming and he could turn it into his job. I am so happy we got to know Rob, his wife and the amazing business they run!
Entering the Karoo
Thorny Creek was one of the first spots that we ran into in the Karoo, but let me tell you about the Karoo! Maybe the easiest way to explain: it’s to South Africa what the Outback is to Australia. A wide and arid area, sparsely populated and thus rather wild. It’s well-known for fossil finds, and extreme weather. Large parts of the South African stretch of The Rhino Run pass through the Karoo, and for us the main attraction to ride this route!
Upon entering it was not like anything we had expected. Some unusually humid and mild weather gave the landscape into a rather green glow with small bushes and plants everywhere, flowers were blossoming. Rae said he had never seen it that way before. We must have been incredibly lucky. The heat picked up again and so it was another day of riding under the scorching sun.
Shortly after we experienced relentless winds. From the sides, from the front, but never in our favor. On the highest pass of the day, the Rooibos Pass we clearly reached our limits. The terrain was very rough and technical and the wind blew you exactly to where you did not want to steer your bike. Still the climb was worth every drop of sweat!
We only went down and on to the small hippie village of Van Wyksdorp where we found a small camping place that offered a nice and even spot for our bivvies. To top it off CC and Stephen prepared a proper Braai for us. A Braai? Yeah that’s South African BBQ at its finest.
While having our Braai we discussed how we should go on. We all felt tired, and had automatically fallen into more of a race pace than we originally intended. We realized we didn’t want to push ourselves as much anymore, and decided to consciously take it more easy on the bike.
A nice detour
The following day you could really feel our relief. It felt easier going without pressure. At some point we even decided to deviate from the original route to get some more really good gravel. Rae suggested we pass through Barrydale and add beautiful Tradouw Pass to our route. And if a local says it is a must-see. Then we trust our local!
Our detour also had the very nice side effect that we would hit Barrydale at lunchtime. A lovely small town with a very mellow atmosphere and some nice restaurants. We hadn’t even ridden up Tradouw and it was already a good decision!
On the way to the Pass some bad weather caught up with us again. But the rain could not change our mood. The pass was epic, winding through an impressive gorge. The road went slightly up, but never too steep. All on smooth “Tar”. The best part? We were already so high up it was only a tiny bit uphill and then we could bomb into a VERY long downhill. LEKKER! (That is something like awesome or cool in South Africa). We found a nice place to stay for the night not much further down and were relishing in our readjusted travel mode.
Fast changing landscapes
After Tradouw Pass the landscape changed significantly. Out of the barren landscape of Karoo, we found ourselves in between green farmlands with hilly, dusty gravel roads passing through the fields. The mountains in the back gave an impression of the landscape we came from, shielding us from the deserted Karoo behind. It was beautiful in so many ways, but very different from the days before. The dust thrown by trucks and agricultural machinery was challenging, but didn’t stop us. We were told that our destination for the day Greyton was a beautiful little town. Around the point we were most overcooked under the mid-day heat, we saw a little stream. Rae jumped right in telling us how nice and refreshing it was. Stephen and CC however had different ideas, telling us about an incident on a crocodile farm nearby where a bunch of crocs escaped. “But they caught nearly all of them.” Yeah sure, scare the dumb Europeans to make jokes of them. We got it. Still, what if there were crocodiles in that stream? How do you actually know if a pond is safe to swim in? It took an awful long time for Bas and me to jump in. And so the boys had their fun. HAHAA. Turns out that that crocodile farm was on an entirely different river and we had nothing to worry about.
Wild South Africa
Before embarking on our trip we had a few questions that amused our South Africa friends a lot. For example, we were worried about camping, as we feared of being pulled from our sleeping bags by wild animals. As it turns out, South Africa isn’t THAT wild anymore. There are no lions running free or anything comparable. That night we had one of the best camp nights ever. Of course we had a Braai that turned into a campfire, but we also enjoyed a nice night under clear skies with beautiful silhouettes of the mountains in the back lit up by the moonlight.
The following morning we woke up with a giant smile on our faces. After packing our gear onto our bikes we rode to town for a coffee and some pastry. We found a very nice café indeed! The owner told us about his involvement in building a network of local mountain bike trails, encouraging people to ride mountain bikes around the area. He had a hard time hiding his enthusiasm, and inspired us immensely. After coffee we headed off to roll through more farmlands, before we arrived at a huge lake. This is one of the largest water supplies in South Africa, supplying the Cape Town area. Rae told us that a few years ago they had a drought and it was empty at the time. Seeing the size of the body of water we couldn’t believe it!
A friend of Rae, Boyd was waiting for us at the lake. He joined us for the big pass of the day. Fransschoek Pass brought us over to the equally named city behind. Slowly we starting noticing: South Africa has a stunning number of these beautifully engineered pass roads? Who built them and why are many of them so well maintained? We enjoyed bombing another perfect descent into town, where we had a few drinks and food, before we said bye to Boyd and headed on further to get more distance in.
When disaster strikes
Still high spirits, we couldn’t wait to see more of this beautiful route. For today Baines Kloof Pass was on the menu, and we rode up the first kilometers, and had it right in front of us… But couldn’t ride it.
At the beginning of the pass we were stopped by construction workers. It was closed and not even passable for cyclists. We probably spent an hour obsessing over maps, trying to find a way around the construction. This should have been one of THE highlights on the route.
In the end we rolled back down to a café and discussed our options. The only real detour was going around the whole mountain range, adding around 120km to our trip for the day. So far so good. But the only road leading around was an interstate and had no shoulder and lots of traffic from big trucks according to locals. What was the point? We were not in a race, we were here for the fun and enjoying this route. Getting run over by a big truck was not part of the plan.
A few phone calls later we found someone with a bakkie (South AFrican for a pick-up truck) that didn’t mind transferring us to the town of Ceres and then drop us off at the edge of the Tankwa Karoo, having another good night of camping in the area and… changing our route again!
The original route only briefly touches the Tankwa Karoo, but Rae had told us so much of this place (that he truely and deeply loves), that we wanted to discover it too. As far as disaster plans go, this couldn’t start any better. Well stocked with food in Ceres we headed out to a camping spot in the middle of the Karoo. When we arrived we immediately noticed the small pool. Completely alone in a semi-desert with nothing around for miles we were enjoying beers in a pool. This was the utter definition of amazing! Stephen made another expert Braai, and we stayed up longer then we wanted to, rocking out to new South African music that the guys were teaching us about. We discussed how things can turn out many times better even when you have to change your plans, and we were now staying in a hotel with a thousand stars above us.
I honestly can’t tell you what night of camping was the best one during our trip. I mean, by scenery it must have been this one. I have NEVER discovered such a spot before. Not a soul around probably within a 30km radius, a pool, some cold beers, braai. As CC would say, it was “HECTIC”.
In my mind I pictured just staying here longer. But on the other hand I couldn’t wait to see more of the Tankwa Karoo and then ride to our final Destination: The Cederberg Oasis.
Welcome to the Cederberg
So we just had to get some roosterkoek (baked bread) at the Padstal (Pad is path, stal is barn. Padstal is the Karoo version of a roadside diner) before returning to the original route. The road through the Tankwa towards the Tankwa Padstal was probably one of the longest straight roads I have seen in my life! It went straight for more than forty kilometers. But it wasn’t boring, not at all. We were flying down the road as the wind pushed us gently from the back, the wide empty road allowed for us all to ride side by side and smile.
At some point the “Dutch Sledgehammer” Bas showed us what drilling means to the dutch riding up front increasing the pace.
Not much longer and we arrived at the Padstal. A small refuge for those travelling through the Tankwa here. And you can already see it from far: Around the house you can see crashed UFOs sticking in the dirt, a car nose-first into the ground and many more installations that make this look like a weird hippy colony, or artwork gone wild.
An elder lady greeted us inside and offered us food and beverages. The Padstal doesn’t offer luxury meals but good easy food for hungry cyclists. It was truely an oasis. We could have stayed days discovering all the small signs, installations and jokes around! A short bit down the same road that we came from and then turning onto another steep road winding up an exposed climb in the midday heat. That was not an easy one, but for most parts on tarmac to our surprise.
The downhill was so steep I was glad we didn’t shoot down full speed. There was no way you would be getting to a halt here before the sharp lefthander just before the bottom.
It was already very hot, but then it got even hotter. In some parts it was actually unbearable. And I like warm weather. We found a pond and jumped in straight away. So good to cool down! The boys were joking: “This time you guys didn’t ask if it was safe to go in!” True thing. Slowly we were becoming real badass south africans… not!
The refreshment didn’t last too long as the water evaporated within minutes. Still we were refreshed, even in our minds. As we pedaled along the dry roads in the sun we slowly wondered where the next resupply was. If your mouth feels dry and sticky already and you’re developing a headache you are seriously dehydrated. Suddenly a café popped up! Small signs next to the road, even advertising free wifi. That’s what you call luxury!
Took a minute to digest that it was closed. We lay in the shade of a big tree before we rolled on to the next valley over a short and very steep climb where a restaurant with self-made ginger beer for sale. We didn’t know how fast to hand over our money!
By tasting this ginger beer, we realised we had reached the Cederberg mountains! Stunning rocky mountains rising up in a dry landscape with scarce flora. From what I am writing I feel like it’s kind of the same wherever you go in South Africa, but believe me it’s not! This place felt unique in every kind of way. The lines which the rocks draw through the landscape, the shades of layers of mountains endless till the horizon, the green oases in the valleys, you need to see it with your own eyes.
However, there were some signs entering the area: “You are now in leopard country!” We threw Rae some worried looks and asked where we were camping tonight. Laughingly, he told us not to worry about it. Leopards are very shy animals, however you should not force them into a narrow spot and well probably you know, respect their territory and keep some space. We would be lucky to even spot one!
This is the end
But back to the ultimate pass of our trip: Grootrivierhoogte Pass which confusingly sometimes is also called Blinkwater Pass had a little twist to it. It went nearly straight up, the steepest we had ridden all week. We could see the top of the climb from the bottom. It wasn’t brutally long, but steep, exposed to the scorching sun and with some patches of rough and very loose gravel. I only had one thought in my mind: don’t get off your bike. I didn’t want to push my bike, not showing any weakness. And I managed to ride to the top, but I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Rae and Bas pushed for the steepest sections which clearly was reasonable in the heat, as you were reduced to walking pace and huffing puffing anyways.
The top was emotional. That was it, all downhill from here. Just descending to the Cederberg Oasis and our trip was over. Neither Bas nor me were ready to leave South Africa. I feel even Rae, Stephen and CC would have been keen to just push on. Of course it is hard to ride a route like this, but it was one of the best times of my life. And I am sure my companions felt the same way. Embarking on an adventure like this created a bond that I’ll remember forever. We regrouped at the top, hugged and fist-bumped on getting this far and went off for the downhill. A beautiful fast gravel downhill leading to the green valley and its small streams full of life. Right in between we found our final destination: The Cederberg Oasis. A campsite with a restaurant. They were serving food, and had a ton of cold beers on hand. And we had some calories that needed to be made up for!
Our Fire Master Stephen worked his magic and created a mighty warm and cozy fire for us and we starting exchanging thoughts and ideas about the trip, already fantasizing about coming back and finishing the route. On that evening I also asked CC a lot of phrases in Afrikaans, one of the languages of South Africa.
One of the things he taught me was the Afrikaans way to say ‘thank you very much’, baie dankie. I couldn’t grasp how to pronounce it, and he repeated to me, switching to English. “Say it like this: Buy-a donkey.”