People have been bike touring since before bicycles existed. The precursor to the bicycle, the dandy horse, was a two-wheeled contraption that a seated rider propelled forward by shuffling his feet as though walking or running. The awkward machines couldn’t have gone fast or far, and yet Frenchmen apparently toured the countryside on them almost 200 years ago. When chain-drive bikes arrived in Europe in the late 19th century, touring took off. As today, bicycles offered a cheaper mode of transport than horses or automobiles, and they gave many more people the freedom to travel.
I, too, love touring for its freedom, though in an age when you can hop from Washington, D.C., to Johannesburg in half a day, it’s clearly a different kind of liberty than just going somewhere. The simple act of moving slower allows you to see things you might not otherwise have seen by car, if only because you’d likely have sped through at 100 kilometers per hour.
Case in point: we start our ride on an isolated stretch of tarmac 180 kilometers up the motorway northeast of Cape Town. There’s nothing significant here, no starting line or coffee shop. This isn’t even the Winelands, but the Karoo, a vast, arid high desert region that is cut off from the coast by a muscly range of sandstone mountains called the Cape Fold Belt. I chose this spot as our starting point mainly because I’ve always wanted to see the Karoo, but also because it promised access to a beautiful pass from the get-go. Over the next six days, we’ll meander back to the coast by way of some of the best-known towns and vineyards in the region, and end the trip with a victory lap of sorts around the Cape Peninsula before the final dive into Cape Town.
At least that’s the idea. On a bike, you can’t always tell what’s up the road.
Bennett, who will be following us at an inconspicuous distance, warns that this first stretch of highway may be busy, so I brace myself for a harrowing start. We pass through a broad expanse of desert-like terrain that recalls the high plains in my home back in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But after 27 kilometers, just two cars have passed us. “We can always source traffic for you,” Bennett jokes at our first rest stop.
We turn west, and the pavement fades to a dirt track and begins climbing up Swaarmoed Pass. On the bike, I’m immediately connected to the place in ways I couldn’t be if I were driving. I have enough time to take in the details. An old woman stands in a meadow rolling with tall green grasses as she pins up bright laundry in the sun. In several fields I see door-high stone arches hung with old brass bells that were once—and may be still, Bennett tells me—rung at mealtimes and to signal the start and end of the work day. Field hands in red and blue jumpsuits harvest kale. And everyone points and waves and laughs and cheers as we ride by.
From the top of the pass, we begin a long descent to the town of Ceres. As we swoop through arcing turns and around blind corners, a floral, citrusy aroma hits me with the force of an old man’s cologne. Peaches. Instead of wine, this town is known for stone fruit, including apricots, cherries, plums, and even some apples.
Though there are no wineries in Ceres, we still manage to find our way to the leafy patio at Witherly’s and, a few hours later, to the bottom of a bottle of chenin-sauvignon blanc. The waitress tells us it’s from Tulbagh, in the next valley to the west. That’s where we’re headed for the night, but there are still 35 kilometers, Mitchell’s Pass, and the languor of a bottle of wine on a sunny afternoon between us.
We eventually roust ourselves, and on the way out of town the two-lane highway tips up through a field of perfectly round boulders like oversize children’s marbles. This late in the day, with the wine still in my belly, the short climb to Mitchell’s Pass—more like Mitchell’s Bump—is a gift, and we plow gently down into the Breede Valley. We pass rows of gangly gum trees and plains of wheat shifting in the wind like a golden sea. Serrated ridgelines lurk at every verge of the flat valley.
Soon we veer into Tulbagh. We ride down Church Street, which is lined with neat little Cape Dutch homes that have thatched roofs, rounded gables, and dazzling white paint. A few kilometers more bring us to Saronsberg, our winery and inn for the night.
After a quick shower at one of the vineyard’s new cottages, we walk down for a tasting at the winery, which is filled with so many paintings and sculptures that you’d be forgiven for thinking it a gallery. “People don’t normally come to Tulbagh. It’s not as famous for wine as Stellenbosch or Franschhoek. We only have maybe five wineries,” says Jolandie van der Westhuizen, the assistant winemaker at Saronsberg. But, she says, motioning to the mountains and fields around us, the terroir is impeccable. “They do good cabernet on the other side of the mountains, but the cooler climate here means we have better pinotage. We want people to come, sit on the patios, and enjoy the views and our wines.”
And that’s just what we do. With a bottle of velvety shiraz in hand, we head for the porch of our mod concrete-and-glass bungalow to rest our legs and watch the daylight fade to inky blue over Saronsberg Peak. After just one full day on the bikes, we’ve ridden clear of the previous day’s concerns.