The sun was up and my cats and I were safely tucked away in bed. I had overslept. In an attempt to not be so hard on myself anymore, I shrugged it off. I had packed the night before and was super chuffed to see 9 kg of gear (minus the cats) squeeze into my Adidas backpack. I had been shopping around for a suitable pack, but hadn't yet found "the one".
I was pretty nervous as I pushed my bike outside and waited for my Garmin 310XT watch to pick up satellites. I would be on my own, cycling 70 km from Malmesbury to Secret Falls (www.secret-falls-tulbagh.com/), north of Tulbagh, for the weekend and fingers crossed I wouldn’t forget anything major or have any issues with my bike. I still didn't feel comfortable dealing with punctures, broken chains and the like.
The first kilometer was a happy descent, but as soon as I hit level ground and started pedalling, panic set it – sitting on a seat with 9 kg on my back was not a good idea and no amount of anti-chafe would relieve me from the effects of a point load applied to the seat. I would just have to suck it up.
It was tough going up Bothmaskloof Pass out of Malmesbury to Riebeek Kasteel, but I was enjoying the familiarity of the Swartland farmland that I had become accustomed to during the past few months of living out here in the sticks.
At the top of the pass a group of riders who I recognised from the Malmesbury Cycling Club passed me and we had a quick chat. It immediately lifted my spirits. They went down a steep gravel section but I was still familiarising myself with riding with a pack, so I opted for the road down the pass into the beautiful valley.
Earlier in the week a colleague had convinced me that after Riebeek Kasteel it was pretty much flat riding to Tulbagh, but it seems it was only an illusion created by sitting in the driver's seat of a car. The feeling of freedom while cycling through the countryside was indescribable. Carrying everything I needed in my backpack, I just wanted to keep going. And then I hit Nuwekloof Pass just before Tulbagh.
I distracted myself by studying the pass and looking over to the old road beneath the railway line. It helped and pretty soon I was flying down the other side.
Fifty something kilometers from home I arrived in Tulbagh with cramping legs. I swallowed 5 Cramp-Eaze capsules. All I wanted to do was sit down. So I stopped for breakfast at the very first place I saw – The Patriot Restaurant at De Oude Herberg in Church Street. They make delicious omelettes and the best freshly squeezed GREEN (as opposed to browny gold) apple juice. It seemed to do the trick and the cramps abated.
At this point I thought I only had a few more kilometers to go and then a little hill up to Secret Falls. It turned out I would go on to do another 20 km and gain a further 600 m of elevation, to give a total of 1100 m of ascent for the day (Nothing phenomenal, but way more than the little bits of riding I had done in the past). Thank goodness I didn't realise it at the time.
From the entrance gate at Secret Falls it’s a 4 km cycle to the campsite. The first section passes through fruit orchards with giant, tempting, tasty looking pears. If you are in a car, you need to leave your vehicle at approximately halfway and jump into a friend’s 4x4 or carry your camping gear for 2 km, which includes a brutal climb near the end.
This picture really doesn't do the climb justice and it almost looks like a downhill! The whole experience was pretty traumatic; I had no idea how far to go before reaching the campsite and it was never where I thought it was. There were always more gates to go through. The feeling was akin to running the end of a trail race with poor route markers when you are already exhausted and you want to strangle the race organiser, cry and lie down on the ground all at the same time. 70 km later I pulled into the campsite on the slopes of the Winterhoek West Mountains.
It was all worth it. Secret Falls was the most beautiful camp site that I had ever seen, with picturesque views for miles over the valley and a pool from which to take it all in. With only 9 campsites, they are currently fully booked until May 2016 (keep an eye on their website for cancellations).
The owners take no nonsense and state upfront that they only want campers who don’t moan and groan about things. They also ask that you take your rubbish home with you. The vibe was really chilled and quiet with awesome people. I was invited to have dinner and breakfast the following morning. I declined because I needed to lighten my own load, but I had great conversations with other adventurous outdoorsy people. Travelling solo has always been a positive experience.
There are four trails on the property. After arriving at the campsite I did the short 30 min out and back Waterfall trail. The waterfall was only trickling this time of year, but the trail is nice and foresty. You can link up with the much longer Baboon trail that loops down to the cottages and back up to the campsites. I had accidently hauled my bike up part of the steepest section of the Baboon trail when I took a wrong turn from the dam on my way up. It was too much for me for one day, but without a bike I imagine it's a lovely hike.
Setting up camp was so much fun and my Vango solo tent was a lot bigger than I expected and really easy to set up.
It was a cool night, but I was nice and toasty inside my First Ascent Down Sleeping bag wearing my Vivolicious tech tights (www.vivolicious.co.za). I usually don’t take expiry dates too seriously because most things tend to last a lot longer than stated on the packaging. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my pink salmon in a sachet that expired in June 2014. It was an epic fail, but I polished off some mushroom risotto which I cooked on my CampingGaz cooker and drifted off to sleep while reading a book about the history of Tulbagh.
The next morning, after watching the sunrise over a cup of coffee I set off along the Leopard trail to the waterfall. From the Leopard trail you can continue along a longer trail to the top of the mountain. I would be coming back later in April to do the route with some friends, so I just wanted a little taster. It looked good and I’m looking forward to getting to the top of the mountain.
I broke camp and was again amazed at how everything could fit into one little backpack. It didn’t seem like I needed much else. Having an entire house filled with so many things suddenly felt very unnecessary.
The Red-E 4500 MAH Powerbank that I had received for Christmas came in really handy. I charged my Samsung S6 once fully and while packing up, I realised that there was a USB port from which I could charge my watch while cycling.
I took it easy on the ride back home and reflected on the adventure…the fear that I had in the beginning and the freedom of venturing out on my own and riding off into the unknown. It was all just brilliant. I often struggle to explain it to most people, but when I speak to other solo adventurers their eyes light up in mutual understanding. To celebrate…and because I simply could not sit on that saddle for one more minute...I stopped for pancakes (salmon, cream cheese and pesto) in Riebeek Kasteel.
My seat had become a fiery furnace and it got incredibly tough towards the end. Tough in the way that I had become accustomed to during endurance events. When your body doesn’t really want to play along, but your mind is so determined that it will absolutely not consider giving up. It’s in that space where I thrive - when the going isn’t necessarily fast, but I feel incredibly alive and acutely aware of the fight within me. It’s moments like this when I am most grateful for the life that I have.
After 2 hours of riding into a headwind and 6 km from home I pulled off and sat down on the side of the road slowly eating my M&Ms. I had been saving them for a possible moment of despair and the mouthfuls of nutty-chocolateyness made me feel much better. I headed up the long climb, reluctantly accepting the reality that my weekend adventure had come to an end.