A Complete South African Immersion at the Karoobaix

Romanticising the desert is as old as literature. From Edward Abbey to Aldo Leopold and Mary Hunter Austin. Over the years, authors and artists alike, have taken to these vast, arid landscapes for inspiration. I, myself, identify with these places and feel most at ease while traversing their planes and mountains. Perhaps its the ability to see for miles, in any direction, or it could be the intricacy of their flora and fauna, but the desert to me is the most wonderful place. Riding a bike in these conditions can be challenging, however. Typically, water is an issue, as is the sun and its oppressive rays, but probably the most incapacitating element is the wind, for you can take measures to block the sun and you can always carry more water.

Last year, I was supposed to travel to South Africa to partake in the Eroica, as well as a cycle tour around the Karoo Desert but I came down with the worst flu of my adult life the day I was supposed to depart. Fast forward a year and I really wanted to return, so I contacted Stan Engelbrecht, the Cape Town local race organizer to see if he wanted to do another trip. Stan also throws the Tour of Ara, a six-day, vintage steel bike-only race. He’s no rookie to races and so I struck up an email thread with him again. That’s when he told me that the Karoobaix was happening.

In short, this is a 400 km race through the desert, which takes place over two days. There are 50 spots available and it’s a strictly drop-bar only race, with no suspension elements allowed. You can, however, race on 27.5″ wheels with bigger tires. Initially, I wasn’t aware of the rules and banked on taking my Hunter rigid 29r, since we had planned on doing a cycle tour after the race, but I was promptly reminded of the drop-bar rules. With my mind made up and my gear already tuned in on the Hunter, I had to beg and plead with the racers, stating I’d be carrying 8kg of camera gear and it’s easiest for me to do so on my rigid MTB. No one took issue with my plea and I was granted access to the event.

40 hours of airline travel and layovers later, and I was sitting in Cape Town at Clarke’s eating much-needed greens and meeting a few of the locals who’d be racing the event. The next morning, Stan, myself, the Karoobaix staff and the rest of the Karoobaix entrants meant at Woodstock Cycleworks to load up their bikes onto a trailer and embark on our 4-hour drive to Calvinia, a small town just north of the Tankwa Karoo National Park.

Upon arriving, settling in and packing my bike, I took off on a sunset ride around the city with Bregan from Brooks. We both wanted to shake down our rides and figure out what would go where. Almost immediately, some children from the town chased us down for photos and high fives. Suddenly, my mind was off the grueling route the next day and it finally sank in that I was in South Africa.

The following morning came early, with a 4am wake-up call and a 5am roll out. We’d have to cover 221km before the day’s end, or at least until the sweeper vehicles came out. For the most part, the race had very little climbs, save for the final push up Ouberg Pass. Apparently, “Ouberg” means “old way,” insinuating the steepness and impracticality of this route, but it’s the only way to go from the valley to Sutherland, our home for the evening. At any rate, we took off from Calvinia and proceeded to race the sunrise over the desert.

Now, the thing about the desert is, time stops at sunrise. It’s as if the light brings about a stillness that is not only seen but felt. The solar energy awakens this blanket of sand and the landscape is transformed into a soft, glowing light. Unfortunately, with the Karoobaix, you haven’t got time to spare. I tried my hardest to push on but as a photographer, I couldn’t resist. Eventually, I found myself off the back of the pack, alone, which I might add, is kind of where I like to be on rides like this. I go at my own pace, stop when I want to, and sure enough, I’ll get to where I’m going. Unfortunately, when you’re by yourself and the wind picks up, it can be hell.

Hell it was, too. With my camera bag at the front of the bike, along with two, 1.5L Nalgene bottles, I had created a bit of a wind dam. Pushing into this, along sandy, washboarded roads proved to be quite difficult. Not to mention my bike was at least twice as heavy as most of the other race machines due to my camera equipment. But hey, I’m used to this and not for a second was I concerned.

After hitting Deluxe Coffee‘s brekkie spot, I arrived at the Karoo Ranger Station, filled up my bottles and realized I had made it halfway, in a relatively fast time. Other racers arrived and we discussed how horrid the wind was, yet it hadn’t kept us down. We learned from a medic on a moto that there were about ten riders behind us too. In a group of 45 racers, that wasn’t too bad. I particularly like “racing” with the chilleurs anyway. We’ve got nothing to prove, after all.

Shortly after the midway point, the wind picked up and the roads degraded. Suddenly, an old friend came to visit. My buddy the inflamed knee tendon. Yeah, it happens sometimes. Mostly when I’m pushing into a headwind or on less than ideal road conditions, which is what I was currently dealing with. My pace dropped, as did my morale and as I approached the final climb of the day, my ambitions died. To top it off, my knee had swollen to twice its size… and I still had 10 miles to go to the evac point. Up!

Luckily, Bregan had also found himself at his wit’s end, as he sat at the bottom of the climb with a “WHAT THE FUCK!?!?” on his face. Living in California, I’m used to steep, hike-a-bikes, but not 100 miles into a 130-mile day. He and I pushed up Ouberg Pass, making conversation and cursing the race organizer – sorry, Stan! At the top, we found a friend, Nic, in his VW bus, in a make-shift wind block. A veritable oasis at the top of a wind tunnel. We were spent. I could barely walk and I was pissed. I came all this way to get my ass kicked and this meant I wouldn’t be able to do the cycle tour afterward. I poured my remaining energy into documenting this wonderful landscape as it was transformed by the fleeting light.

I’m not a negative person, so I tried to see the positivity in all this. This minutiae of hope kept the stoke going and as we were in the shuttle driving to the day’s destination, I was still glad to be here.

Sleep has never come so easily. I kept my leg propped up, iced it down, took advil and some CBD pills in hopes that would help. The morning came and my knee was no better. Even worse, I was so exhausted, I could barely walk. That day, while the remaining racers took to racing day two, I slept in the back of the sweeper vehicle, only to awaken at the most wonderful sight.

The ladies who own Clarke’s in Cape Town, along with Poppie, a local food stand vendor had made the most wonderful oasis out of an abandoned house. There they served champagne, sandwiches and other delicacies, right in the middle of the Karoo Desert. Each time racers would ride through its gates, Poppie would run out to greet them. It was such an amazing experience and one that really solidified this event in my mind. Suddenly, the Karoobaix made sense to me. It’s as much about the community support as it is the race itself. Events like this wouldn’t happen without this love.

With a newfound ambition, I wanted to make the best of my remaining time in this magical place. Upon arriving in Matjiesfontein, our final destination, I began exploring this one-street town and our hotel, the Lord Milner. Straight from a Wes Anderson film, this place is a snippet from colonial South Africa. With gardens, walkways and a swimming pool, the photographic tour of the grounds took my mind off my swollen knee and put all my remaining energy into documentation.

Unbelievably, I had barely seen a single animal on this ride. Even the desert flora, when compared to our deserts in the US was slim but at the Lord Milner, the gardens were lush with beautiful birds and… oh SHIT! That’s a cobra! As I was exploring a cactus garden, a cobra, basking in the sun, skirted away into the brush…

The rest of the afternoon spent photographing racers as they finished the course, shooting bikes and doing my best to be social. Admittedly, I was in a pretty dark place still, bummed out about my knee and not being able to go on the tour, but I tried to hold it together and put my mind on photos. Oddly enough, the race itself wasn’t a mental challenge to me, but not being able to ride in the tour was crushing my spirit.

Then, something happened. Perhaps it was the golden glow of the fleeting sun, or the smiling conversations, but I finally let go of my expectations and really soaked in the magic of this place. As I talked to Stan about the event, I patted him on the back, giving him praise and saw his face light up. Every single person was stoked. No one was hurt – save for me – and the locals in Matjiesfontein absolutely loved us.

Evenings like that are often too rushed and this was no exception. Before I knew it, everyone was taking off on a shuttle back to Cape Town the next morning, our troup of cycle tourists were packing up and Nic offered to give me a ride back to Cape Town in his VW Bus. With only a few hours left in my stay, I edited photos and began to jot down my thoughts.

While races like the Karoobaix serve the local cyclists, traveling internationally to these events is one of my favorite experiences. You get to sample the local flavors, soak in the culture and ride new places. The desert is my favorite place to be and now I’ve checked one more off my list. Next year, I’ll return, but perhaps I’ll save my energy for the bicycle tour.

I want to thank Stan, his team and everyone that made the Karoobaix possible this year! If you’re interested in what Stan does, check out the Tour of Ara and the Karoobaix.

  • Peter Hedman

    Yes – sounds like a must do in the future!

    Nice work Prolly – sometimes it takes a sideline like the knee to make one appreciate a place/space.

    • Agreed. It’s almost too much to race / photograph something like this. From here on, I need to weigh what is more important and focus on just one.

      • Liam Lynch

        It’s too much to keep up with even on a motorbike John, I was feeling gaps myself. But this is beautiful! Well done. Loved the familiar from an outside eye, you made me cast a fresh glance at much I take for granted. The writing, the landscapes, all of it is top!

  • Dirk Cajada

    You’ll be back. Great images!

  • Masterchief

    As someone who has never been to either South Africa or Southern California, I would never have been able to tell you went halfway across the globe this time (apart from the flags, obviously).

  • Gus

    John thanks for photos. I still think SA is the most beautiful place in the world and there’s so much to explore. The races there always seem to be absolutely brutal in their inaugural year.

    Hope you got to experience Oli Munnik in full force.

  • AdamBike99

    Unsurprisingly, you continue to out-do yourself with each adventure John (bum knee be damned, and sorry to hear about it flaming up). From my perspective, your bike appears to be a pack mule (albeit a sexy one) among thoroughbreds, especially in such windy and isolated race conditions.
    Also, I really dig how your documentation of the architecture against the landscape portrays the true harshness of the conditions and how challenging it is to survive there (human or otherwise!).

    • Thanks so much, Adam. That’s what I was going for with the Architectural Moments. :-)

  • Max G.

    Lovely pics and ride. Interestingly enough, in predominantly black country, not a single black rider. Just an observation.

    • Yeah I was surprised, although cycling in SA is expensive and this race is 4 hours from Cape Town and during the week. It drastically widdles down potential entrants.

    • Hi Max. As the organiser of KAROOBAIX this is of course something that weighs heavily on me. We have a complicated political landscape, and an event like this shows up the economic divide that still exists here. For my other race, the Tour of Ara, we sponsor 5 underprivileged riders each year to come and race with us. This just wasn’t financially possible with KAROOBAIX. However, I wish it was not a case that non-white racers have to be sponsored into an event like this. More than anything I want my events to be multicultural, and of course include more women, but this is easier said than done. But if I have my way this race will grow to be more representative of who we are as South Africans. Thanks for your observation – it’s an important one that many might feel to nervous to mention.

    • Hollis Duncan

      I don’t mean this to sound snarky but is SA predominantly black? I always thought it was the continent’s outlier and more like 50/50. I was a Peace Corps trainee in Mauritania after college and a piece of my heart will always be in Africa.

  • Nice photoset! Now I want to go back to South Africa… so much to explore there, even though it’s a relentlessly harsh landscape. I guess no Die Hell because of your knee?

    • Yeah, no touring for me this round. I’m so bummed!

      • Well, Africa gets in your blood… you’ll be back. It is tough having to call a trip for an injury though. Heal up.

  • vopop

    Can’t figure your front bag setup. Would you please fill in?

    • It’s an Outer Shell bag – kind of a working prototype – it straps to the bars and uses padded spaces to set it in front of the head tube by a few inches.

      • Thanks for taking the bag out there and bringing back these rad photos!

  • Adam Leddin

    Legend effort. Thanks again for the superb documentation, John!

  • Fantastic write-up and amazing day one terrain/vista shots.

  • Lyndall Maunder

    Was so good feeding everyone and seeing how totally stoked they were! Thanks for the beautiful photo’s and great words, see you next time!

    • Hi Lyndall. I want to thank you and your team, and Poppie as well, for the truly incredible Clarke’s oasis you created for us out there in the desert. Your black bean and egg hoagies made an already special day completely unforgettable!

    • Can’t wait!

  • Wow John. Thanks for the kind words. It was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to have you join us. It’s a real honour to see ourselves up on the Radavist – a site that we all (like many others around the world) follow with close interest and anticipation. Being at the Southern-most tip of Africa we can sometimes feel a bit cut off from the rest of the world, but sites like yours keep us inspired and updated as to what is happening elsewhere. Your images and stories are always of the highest quality, and it’s been amazing to see ourselves through your foreign lens. South Africa is truly a fantastic destination for cycling adventure (although often difficult and dangerous), and you really capture that. Thanks John. Heal up soon. And please know that you are always welcome to come back and visit as long as you want!

  • Guessing Canon longlens shots and Leica wide/normal?

  • Zac

    I fractured my left arm when a pickup cut me off in Alpine, TX while I was attempting a permanent route out there. I’ve been off the bike for almost three weeks now, and I can totally identify with you on that ‘dark place’. We (I) get so used to life on the bike that sometimes we (I) start to take for granted the joy and satisfaction that comes from a day to day life spent in motion.

    Take care of yourself, John.

    PS – thanks for creating this photoset! I’m living vicariously through these riders!

  • Pascal K

    so good!

  • Bas Rotgans

    Was wanting to got to this event so badly! Thanks for taking the shots, and making us feel a little like we were all there. #56 does it for me…

  • Andrew Kilmartin

    I have been an avid follower of yours John for many years,coming over to ride and document this race and our beautiful country is a true privelege for us in SA, what an amazing write up and set of picture you have made my year !

  • AngryBikeWrench

    #38 is maybe my favorite shot of yours. It feels like when when they went to Ludicrous Speed.