You know how a hashtag can fuck you? Well maybe not, but a few years ago my good friend Nic and I had this idea … we’d always been intrigued by the pans – or mud flats – of the Northern Cape here in South Africa. At the time we were really getting into riding fixed gear bikes and one day it hit us – let’s take our fixed gear bikes onto the pan! Why not? Surreal landscapes, super smooth surfaces good enough for world speed records! Sounds like a good adventure right? We did some research and found out that that year there was a South African Speedweek planned in September 2014 on the Hakskeenpan, coinciding with the launch of a planned rocket-propelled car land speed record attempt – the Bloodhound SSC. We decided to travel up in Nic’s old 1963 Porsche 356 – it seemed appropriate. Bikes on the roof, gear in the back.
Now the Speedweek basically turned out to be just a bunch of yokels getting drunk, drag racing and doing donuts in their homemade dragsters and modified supercars, and the Bloodhound car wasn’t even there, but we made our way along the edge of the pan and camped far away from the chaos and had a great adventure anyway. Riding on the expanse of the Hakskeenpan was way more incredible than we thought it could be. At about 240 square kilometers, you could ride for ages in any direction without seeing the landscape around you change. And we could go fast! Even close our eyes and see how long we dared to go for. At night we took the bikes out onto the pan and rode under a dome of stars expanding to the horizon in all directions. We were hooked. We badly wanted to arrange some kind of fixed gear event on Hakskeenpan, but logistically it would be hard. The pan is about 1000 kilometers north of Cape Town, in probably one of the remotest areas of South Africa, where the borders of Namibia and Botswana meet our own.
In 2016 we decided to check out another pan closer to home. Not that much closer, but at 650 kilometers from Cape Town it nearly halved the traveling time to get there. Verneukpan is bigger than Hakskeenpan, but the surface is not as good. There are areas that are very hard and smooth, but large swathes are covered in sparse dry scrubs and small stones. It still made for great riding though. We spent three days there with two friends camping in the middle of the pan, this time in Nic’s old 1979 VW Kombi.
Two days of incredible weather lulled us into a false sense of security. We forgot that we were in a wild and hostile place. At night I slept out under the stars on a tarp in my sleeping bag. On the third night, I was woken by a huge raindrop on my forehead. Minutes later, with everyone awake, we congregated under the awning at the Kombi to wait out the rain, but by sunrise a serious storm was fast approaching from the northeast. The wind was threatening to blow us and everything we had away – it was clear we’d have to get out of there. We fought the wind and broke camp as quickly as we could, every now and then having to sprint after a plate or a pillow swept away by the strengthening wind. With everything but the bikes secured we were almost ready to make our escape, but we took one last chance to ride the pan. This time we rode into the wind as far as our legs and lungs could carry us, and as you turned back and picked up speed, everything went silent. The wind would push you from behind and soon you’d be spinning out, the only sounds your tyres flying along the smooth surface and your heart pounding in your ears. This was the mama of all tailwinds.
So, back to that hashtag … we’d come up with what we thought was a nice, simple and unique name for our pan adventures – TrackPan. We checked out #trackpan and at the time there were no images attached to the hashtag on Instagram. Perfect. For a while there our #trackpan memories were neatly grouped and preserved, but slowly we started noticing it – a scourge of athletic-wear meets ridiculous street-fashion merged with the unfortunate misspelling of #trackpants, and now our memories will forever be littered with Russian dudes showing off their Adidas trackies! Fuuuuuuck!
Anyway, it was my friends Jared and Carl exploring #trackpan that became the impetus for them to pick up the idea again in 2020. They loved the images and stories, and felt they could create an event out of it. Jared and Carl are behind the Cape Town-based Mother Amateur Bicycling Club, notorious for their super-cool Mother cycling socks but best known for their local independent races, like the Busline 3000 (a dodgy out-and-back fixed gear race along a bus route, at night) and the Cable Station Hill Climb (a lung-destroyer for metal bikes only). DUST was born, and it was held at Verneukpan at the end of November last year. The guys dreamt up four races: on the Saturday at sunset the 1KM DUST no drafting sprint race; the DUSTline 3000 (a 3 kilometer sprint race, the dirt equivalent of the Busline 3000); the DUSTlocrit (a 1.1 kilometer elimination lap race); and at sunrise on the Sunday the DUST45 (five laps of a 9 kilometer route on the pan).
Now just because Verneukpan is closer to Cape Town than Hakskeenpan, it is by no means easy to get to. Donnet and I decided to drive up over two days and camp somewhere in the Oorlogskloof area, and by the time we’d met up with the first members of our group in Brandvlei, Troy already had a roadside burst radiator pipe repair to report, and Jon had had three bad punctures that necessitated the purchase of two new tyres and a handful of crazy stories about undrivable roads and other Google Maps evils. And we hadn’t even gotten to the most notorious stretch of road yet. From Brandvlei we drove in convoy, and after about 40 minutes there was another puncture on one of the bakkies. It was here, while waiting around for Pieter and Albert to change the tyre, that Sam the photographer caught up with the convoy. He’d decided to come up by motorcycle through the Tankwa Karoo. The night before he’d run out of water and slept rough after seven punctures and a disintegrating rear tyre. He made it to somewhere the next morning where they sold him a second hand tyre.
He looked like he’d been to hell. The roads up there nearly broke everyone – realistically it’s about a minimum eight hour drive from Cape Town, without factoring in mechanicals. Ben and his crew drove up early on the Saturday morning and they arrived in the late afternoon cursing Google Maps, and with another crazy story … on a terrible dirt road between Niewoudtville and Brandvlei they got two punctures minutes apart. A one-armed farmer passed by and luckily offered to take him to town to get a new tyre, while Jake and Pat waited at the car and fitted the spare they had. By the time Ben and the farmer got back to the car they all saw the spare was flat. Back to town they went to get yet another tyre fitted to the rim. Ben got dropped back at his car, thanked the farmer and headed off to Brandvlei where they had to pick up one or two supplies, and there they ran into their farmer friend … but this time he had two arms. They thought the heat was getting to them when it was confirmed by another local that in fact this man was the twin of the one-armed farmer. Things were getting too surreal and they still had to get to Verneukpan. Point is – the Northern Cape will chew you up and spit you out. It’s wild country. And you need the help of a few friendly locals to get out alive.
When we arrived at the pan this time it was hot and windy. Temperatures can soar over 40℃ (that’s over 100℉), and there is no potable water (only the most horribly sulfurous borehole water that’s barely OK enough to wash in). Everyone in our first convoy slowly got to work in the blazing sun setting up their tents and putting together their bikes. It was fiery hot and the only shade for kilometers were the three curved corrugated iron roofs and a bush lapa that also served as a wind shield for braais (for our non-South Africans – a “braai” is a fire pit for cooking). There were also two threadbare permanent caravans for those poor souls who come out here with nothing to sleep on or under. As the sun lowered, so did the temperature and a few of us jumped on our bikes to explore the pan a bit further than we dared to earlier.
As night fell we returned to the camp and started making fires and preparing dinner. Bike talk, beer drinking and braaing kept us busy until our sun-weary eyes took us to bed one-by-one.
By the time the sun had cleared the horizon on Saturday morning it was hot. I think we all had plans to spend the day exploring the pan by bicycle but by the time we all had breakfast reality had set in. Save for a few short excursions onto the pan, everyone stayed close to the little shade there was. Snacks and smack-talk was the order of the day, and Bert’s constant one-liners that culminated in “OK enough, even I’m sick of me now” and him stomping off kept us in stitches. Around midday Jared laid out the racing during a quick brief and handed out handmade race numbers. Then the wind started picking up, just as Jared and his crew started putting up the finish line banner and official DUST sign, which provided some more comedy.
But with bikes prepped, race numbers fitted and the day’s heat cooling – it was time to race. First up was the 1 kilometer sprint. We all rode out onto the pan and after a bit of back-and-forth we lined up in our “lanes”, since no drafting was allowed. Not that it would have helped much – we were riding into a strong crosswind, just hitting us slightly from the front. It was 1 kilometer of hell, and at the finish line most of us collapsed into a coughing fit – the hot dusty wind blowing straight into our gaping mouths fighting for as much oxygen as possible filled our lungs with dust. DUST! It sounded like a 1890s tuberculosis ward out there. It was such chaos I can’t remember who won, but it was probably Ryno The Beast. Next up was DUSTline 3000, the 3 kilometer sprint INTO THE WIND. Horrible. Ryno takes it. Last for the day was the elimination lap race. The 1.1 kilometer obstacle course, with some straight sprint sections, started disintegrating after the first lap. As each rider was eliminated they were met by Pieter’s strong rum and Stoney cocktails to ease the pain. For each rum Pieter handed out he had one for himself too. By the time the race was down to four riders some disintegrating sections had to be approached at top speed, or you’d have to shoulder your bike cyclocross-style to get over the sand. The final lap came down to Bert and Ryno, and Bert took the win on his “high-performance piece-of-shit” rat bike. Good work Bert! By now Pieter was very, very happy and more rums were making the rounds. The rest of the evening was an exercise in self-control – we all wanted to eat and drink and let loose but we knew we’d have to be up before sunrise for the final race, the DUST45. Some succeeded better than others.
Seeing the sunrise over the pan is truly a spectacular sight. It’s still and not hot yet, so you can really appreciate it. We got everyone up and out of bed, and soon it was time to race. Now 45 kilometers is not far, but legs were sore from the afternoon before, and the varying pan surfaces can tire you out quickly, especially depending on what gear ratio you selected. This 9 kilometer course included sandy patches, scrubs to dodge, a rough section that makes the worst parts of Paris-Roubaix look like the Nürburgring. Then there was a beautifully smooth part with a gentle tailwind. But no DUST circuit would be complete without a lung-busting stretch into said wind back to the camp area. Repeat five times. Ryno The Beast made it clear the DUST trophy was his, and broke away on the last lap to secure the win and the overall trophy.
The joy of finishing DUST was quickly overshadowed by the realization that it was still a long and arduous journey, possibly filled with punctures and untold mechanicals, back to Cape Town. Everyone got to work stuffing their faces with breakfast and coffee, breaking camp and securing bikes as best they could.
It was time to go, but not before Pieter could add the final touch to this scorcher of a weekend…