MOTO SAFARI: SOUTH AFRICA
Words by Ben Giese | Photography by John Hebert
The road to Hell is paved with silence and solitude, but there is no pavement to be found here: just a wild and treacherous dirt path that cuts through the unforgiving Swartberg mountains, winding and twisting like a cobra ready to strike. And it certainly will if you’re not careful.
The sun is sinking lower in the sky as my friend John Hebert and I realize that we need to pick up the pace if we’re going to make it to our destination before dark. On the side of the road, we pass a sign that reads “Dangerous road for 48km! Use at own risk!” just as the shadows begin creeping in, swallowing the entire valley. The sunset is beautiful from here, but we can’t afford to linger. The road to Hell waits for no one, and it’s not a place you want to ride at night. So we push on, chasing the fading light down a narrow pass, navigating loose gravel, boulders, sharp hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs. Engines roaring, hearts pounding.
At the bottom of the valley, our tires sink into the sand, and dust fills the air like a thick, choking fog. Deeper into the heart of darkness, we are now passing through a forest of dead, charred-black trees, towering like twisted sentinels guarding the forgotten secrets of this valley. Bats dance in a frenzy overhead against a sky that fades from purple to orange, and the baboons and leopards, well, they’re out there, too. Lurking in the shadows and watching us with eyes that glow like hot coals in the dark. I glance behind to see a blood-red moon rising over the mountain pass we just descended, casting an eerie glow over the landscape. Looks like it’ll be a full moon in Hell tonight.
Our destination at the end of this dizzying road is the remote village of Die Hel. Translating to “The Hell” in English, Die Hel (now sometimes referred to as Gamkaskloof) is one of the strangest communities in South Africa. Originally settled by European refugees who fled British colonial rule in Cape Town in the 1830s, the residents of this valley chose to shut the doors on the outside world for over a hundred years. No cars, no electricity, no phones and no contact. There was no road in, and no road out.
If you choose to believe popular South African lore, this reclusive community was said to be found living off the land, wearing goatskin clothing, brewing potent alcoholic elixirs out of honey and speaking an outdated dialect of Dutch. But that’s not all. According to some accounts, they would even marry their own cousins and raise demented children. In André Brink’s novel titled “Devil’s Valley,” published in 1998, he paints a haunting portrait of a valley where the residents are said to be inbred, the dead are rumored to walk among the living, and unwanted children are stoned to death. These bizarre tales blur the lines between reality and myth and have captured the imagination of countless travelers, journalists and writers who have dared to venture into this enigmatic place.
But the road to Die Hel is just the tip of the iceberg on our travels through remote South Africa. In fact, that journey started long before we ever set foot on this continent. And the road to get here, and the miles ahead, were going to be just as wild.
It all began last summer in a conversation with my pal Wesley Hannam during a trip through the jungles of Costa Rica. Wesley runs a motorcycle adventure company called Moto Safari that curates dream riding trips to some of the most incredible destinations in the world, and South Africa has always at the top of his list. It’s where he was raised, so he knows the place like the back of his hand and promised to show us all the weird and wild things off the beaten path.
“You think Costa Rica is cool? You have to come to South Africa. It’s next-level,” he tells us. “It’ll blow your mind. I’m planning a trip next year.” I was game for anything at that point, so Wesley put together an epic route around the southern part of the country, and nine months later John and I were touching down in Cape Town, ready to hit the road like the fearless creatures we were born to be.
Leaving behind the comforts of Cape Town, we enjoy some mind-bending views on South Africa’s most famous road through the Van Der Stel and Franschhoek passes. The roads are fun, but it’s nothing different from the riding we do in the States, at least not until we get our first real taste of Africa. As we crest over a hill and lean left into a fast corner, a group of baboons come tearing across the road like rabid dogs. It’s a wild sight for us Americans, but we are on our way to Baviaanskloof after all – Baboon Valley – and this is just a taste of the wildlife to come.
We quickly leave the pavement behind as the road turns to loose gravel, and before long we find ourselves in the Cederberg Mountains. The landscape is spectacular, with towering cliffs, rugged canyons and otherworldly rock formations that look like they have been sculpted by the gods themselves. Riding with Wesley is like having our own personal guide into another world, a world that most people will never see. And as the sky turns pink and purple that night, we settle into our tents, listening to the sounds of the wilderness all around us and dreaming of what’s to come.
From Cederberg, we would be heading farther up in elevation over the infamous Ouberg Pass. Known for its treacherous conditions, the locals warned us that the road was in the worst condition they had ever seen. They said we wouldn’t make it on these big bikes, but we’ve never been ones to turn our backs on a challenge, so we keep on riding east toward Sutherland.
About halfway to Ouberg Pass, in the middle of nowhere, we come across an ostrich stuck in a barbed-wire fence. The poor bird is struggling for its life, so Wesley jumps off his bike with some pliers and cuts him free. When the ostrich finally escapes, it runs off covered in blood, never looking back. It’s a heart-wrenching sight to see it struggle, and who knows if it survived, but it’s nice to be a part of a small act of kindness in this vast and unforgiving land. Maybe that would bring us some good omens for the challenging climb ahead.
When we finally reach Ouberg pass, it becomes clear that the locals weren’t lying. The road is torn to shreds with large boulders, deep ditches and loose rock strewn everywhere. The steep, rocky climb takes a lot of finesse to wrestle these large machines up, but we are determined to make it to the top. And when we finally reach the summit, it feels like we’re on top of the world. We had conquered one of the most challenging sections of the trip, and there was no turning back. I lie down in the shade and stare at the clouds to catch my breath while John snaps some photos of the endless and infinite views.
High up on that plateau, we continue down a pleasant dirt road into Sutherland with herds of springbok running in the fields next to us, kicking up dust in the golden light of the evening. We arrive at our lodge just as the sun is slipping out of sight, and we prepare to bask in the glory of the starry night sky that Sutherland is renowned for.
This small town nestled deep in the heart of the Karoo desert is a top-notch destination for stargazers from all corners of the Earth, boasting an observation station for the South African Astronomical Observatory. This idyllic setting is blessed with pollution-free air, a semi-desert terrain, and towering elevation above sea level, creating an ideal breeding ground for cloudless nights. The Sutherland observatory is also home to the Southern African Large Telescope, a behemoth among the world’s largest telescopes that has made some remarkable discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics research.
It feels like Heaven as we polish off a delicious meal and drift off to sleep in our cozy beds, but we can’t get too comfortable, because we know tomorrow will be an adventure into the depths of Hell.
The morning frost melts quickly as we make our descent to lower altitudes, carving our way through the red rock canyons of Seweweekspoort Pass. We are really getting into the flow and riding fast down the canyon – at least until a cobra slithers out onto the road, darting under John’s tires. When he accidentally runs it over, I swerve into the other lane to avoid its bite as it flips around on the road striking at our wheels.
The tarmac gives way to dirt, and the scenery shifts into a lush green oasis with sparkling blue lakes nestled in the hills. Monkeys chatter in the trees, and wild giraffes roam in the distance. It feels like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park, but a few hours later it would feel more like Lord of the Rings as we approach the razorback peaks of the Swartberg Mountains. I half-expect dragons to swoop down from the sky as we tackle the curves of Swartberg Pass. The road is supported by ancient stone walls and bridges that look like something out of a medieval fantasy. Was this Africa or Scotland? Regardless, we need to ride fast because the sun is getting low, and soon we would enter Die Hel.
When we arrive at our destination just after dark, we’re greeted with friendly smiles and a delicious meal. We bunk down in a historic farmhouse, surrounded by camp and picnic sites, crumbling buildings, a cemetery, an old Norse watermill and the Gamka River. The hospitality and amenities are stellar, with hot dinner and breakfast, showers and a comfortable bed to recharge our batteries. Wi-Fi and emails are now a distant memory as we settle in for the night. We kick off our sweaty boots and sit around the fire pit, and it’s hard to think of this place as any kind of Hell.
The soft morning glow of the sun slowly spreads through the valley, and it’s finally time to gear up and drop into the Baviaanskloof. We spend the next two days on a remote two-track road leading through forests full of baboons, enjoying a traditional South African braai – the South African version of barbecue – grilling meats over the fire and sleeping among giant spiders in a makeshift shelter built into the side of a cave. The road climbs up and down, winding back and forth through the trees, canyons and water crossings, with monkeys everywhere. I didn’t think this place could get any more magical until I look in my rearview mirror and see a white horse running behind my motorcycle. I’m not sure why it’s following me, but it’s a truly majestic moment that I will never forget.
We spend the next 48 hours relaxing in the ocean breeze, listening to the waves crash and washing off all those dusty miles in the quiet little coastal town of Saint Francis Bay. Wesley, our fearless leader, was raised here, and he welcomes us into his beautiful home with open arms. The hard part of the journey was now behind us, but the adventure isn’t over just yet: We have one more exciting stop on the map before heading back to Cape Town.
About two hours northwest from Saint Francis Bay, we enter the oldest private game reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Known for being densely stocked with more than forty mammal species and approximately 2,000 animals, the reserve includes heavyweights such as elephants, hippos, giraffes, crocs, and even the king of the jungle itself: the lion.
We spend the afternoon exploring with a safari guide, getting up close and personal with these wild beasts. When the afternoon comes to a close, we retreat back to our bush camp, where we dine on ostrich meat and sip South African wines, swapping tales of our adventures and marveling at the wonders we had witnessed that day. We fall asleep to the sound of roaring lions and other creatures of the night. It was a real African experience that we won’t soon forget. It felt like we had finally made it to where we were going – it had been a long road to get here that took months of planning, two days of flying and seven days of riding, but it had been worth every second.
By this point in the journey, the fatigue begins to set in, seeping into our bones like a cold winter’s chill, so we take the easy way back to Cape Town. It will take two excruciatingly long days covering endless highway miles from sunup to sundown, but it gives us that valuable time alone in our helmets to let our minds turn inward and reflect back on this incredible adventure. We had traversed some treacherous terrain, rode through baboon-infested forests, and locked eyes with some of the most awe-inspiring wildlife on the planet.
South Africa left a mark on our souls. We came here expecting to find a harsh and formidable land on our way to a place called Hell. But instead what we found was a powerful and dynamic dreamscape, rich with life and diversity. We found Heaven.