Losing Our Heads at the Onguza Loskop Local Cycling Festival in Namibia

Held in Omaruru, Namibia this past July, the Onguza Loskop Local is a weekend festival with “great food, drinks & friends, with a wee bit of cycling thrown in for good measure.” After deciding the event looked really lekker Cape Town locals Stan Engelbrecht and Donnet Dumas made the trip out and each rode the event in divergent fashions—Donnet on a borrowed too-small Giant, and Stan on his ill-advised fixed-gear with skinny tires—and share a joint account of their adventure…

From Cape Town, South Africa to Omaruru, Namibia

Stan (Cape Town, South Africa): “Friends! Donnet and I have a half-baked plan … A friend of ours, Dan Craven of Onguza (they build bikes in Omaruru!!!) is organizing an event later this month and we’re thinking of flying up. So how about we go together?”

Conrad (Windhoek, Namibia): “Now this looks really lekker. We’ve got a shit load to sort out but we’ll deal with it, we’re in!!!”

Donnet: “What followed was an onslaught of WhatsApp messages between 4 adults who were frantically sorting out the logistics of getting themselves, 2 kids, and 5 bicycles from Cape Town to Windhoek to the Loskop Local in Omaruru.

Stan and I had missed Dan and Collyn on our previous overlanding trip through Namibia in June 2021.It was now July 2023 and we were booking flights and accommodation, sorting out dog-sitters and bribing children to miss best friend’s birthday parties. We just needed to figure out what bikes to take. And here I’m going to hand over to Stan…”

Stan: “The reason I was so keen to get to this event was simple: I think what Dan is doing with Onguza is one of the coolest, most inspiring things I’ve heard about in a while. Around 2018, Dan told me over text messages about this plan of his, that he and two farmworkers he grew up with, Petrus and Sakaria, had been experimenting with a brazing kit. A while later, Robin Mather (of The Bicycle Academy, now sadly defunct) flew in from the UK and spent a month in Namibia helping the guys hone their skills and turn their first experiments into fully-functional bicycle frames. Over the next few years, with the help of an impressive list of ‘who’s who’ in bicycle frame building, the guys turned their building skills from craft to art. Now Onguza is building world-class steel frames and empowering local people with skills to help provide a sustainable income for their families, in the middle of nowhere. In a small, desert town called Omaruru.

Prone to the occasional odd idea, I was thinking of taking my Mercer fixed gear to rip some single track in Namibia. Clever? No. But kinda practical, because we were flying to Namibia for only four days, and what’s easier to pack than a straight-up fixed gear with frame-splitting S&S couplers and a flat bar?

When I spoke to Dan I tried to feel out what to expect in terms of terrain, without letting on what I was planning. He was pretty clear that he didn’t even feel that a gravel bike was suitable. ‘More of an MTB event’ is what he was trying to impress on me. OK, so fixed gear it was!”

Donnet: “Two weeks later, Stan and I were getting into an Uber for the airport. We left Cape Town on a cold and wet Thursday morning and landed two hours later in a sunny and dry Windhoek. We were staying with our friends Hanneke and Conrad. We had a free morning to explore Windhoek while their kids were in school before we left for Omaruru. I wanted to test out Finn’s (their eldest) Giant mountain bike on the hills of Windhoek. We grabbed a coffee and then hit some local sites; Stan even showed me where he, Conrad, and Hanneke went to school!

Choice Weekend Accommodations at Studio Eins

At 2 pm with three bikes on the roof of the Landy and two more on the back rack, we hit the road. The 215 km is mostly tarred, with only the last stretch being a lovely gravel road that leads into town. For accommodation, Dan had pointed us in the direction of local artist, Steffi and Eins Art Studios. Steffi’s compound is made up of an unusual cluster of buildings that can house various groups in four studio spaces as well as Steffi’s own working art studio and gallery. Hanneke, Conrad, and the kids checked into the larger two-bedroom studio, perfect for families. Stan and I checked into the Rosenberg Studio with its charming stained glass windows and vanishing-point steel-framed doorway.”

Stan: “We pulled into Omaruru at around 5 pm and headed straight for Studio Eins to get the bikes off the car and go and find Omuntu Gardens, Dan and Collyn’s home, and also the event HQ. Omuntu Gardens is beautiful, in a quirky Namibian way. An oasis with massive trees, exotic succulents, local sculptures, and beautiful furniture. As we rolled into the delicious aromas of the spit braai going full tilt and roasting chickpeas, beers were deposited into our hands immediately (this is another very Nambian thing—’have a beer!’) We spotted Dan gesticulating over a massive map of their family’s and the neighboring farms, detailing the various single-track routes around the famous koppie at its center, which they call Loskop (although its indigenous name is “Orrue”).

The funny thing is that even though we’ve been chatting for many years, Dan and I had never met in person until this moment. We spotted each other and smiled. He looked down and raised his eyebrows at my fixed gear, and we hugged like we’d known each other for years.

As always an event organizer’s time is stretched thin between all those who want, or need, a bit of their attention. But between the distractions and questions Dan made us feel so welcome and introduced us around. The rest of their team got us registered and sold us some super-cool Loskop Local t-shirts (screen printed in Omaruru, no less!). With the fires going, food dished up and beers flowing, we sat down to Collyn’s incredible meal, which even included freshly baked sourdough bread and farm butter (trust me, such delicacies are not easy to come by in Namibia).

After seconds (thirds?) we sat around the fires for a while catching up with some old faces and meeting some new ones. But getting up in the winter cold way before sunrise was on everyone’s mind and before too long we were the last to head out and off to bed.”

Riding the Onguza Loskop

Donnet: “We were up at dawn, with only a faint hint of pink on the dusty horizon. We’d opted for shorts and only a few layers because the day promised to be hot. Later, we would thank ourselves heartily, but for now I couldn’t feel my fingertips, kneecaps and nose. Shortly after arriving at the start, I was politely asked if I would be hiking the entire route. I looked down at my get-up and realized I was wearing way too little lycra for anyone here to take me seriously. My fresh high-top hiking boots being a dead giveaway that I was a total newb. Thankfully just then Dan rose to the top step of his porch and briefed us on the various loops and where to find the hidden gems along the routes. ‘But just get lost and have fun! Remember it’s not a race. As you leave through the gate there’s a patch of soft sand, then you’ll dip into the riverbed across the palette bridge and then follow your nose until you get to the farm gate.’”

It was 8 am and we were off. Stan zig-zagged through the throng with me lagging behind and immediately hitting a dead stop when I hit that first patch of sand just outside the gate. I pulled off to the side, let all the pros pass and then pushed off into the sunrise, bouncing over the wooden palettes with a calming internal mantra repeating through my head, ‘Oh god, what have I got myself into!’

After regrouping with Stan on a short section of tar he said, ‘When the sand gets soft, gear down and just keep pedaling. It’s just like driving Jim.’ Jim is our Suzuki Jimny 4×4 and I can confirm that although Jim comes with an engine and is not pedal-powered, I did eventually – eventually – find the similarity in the loose handling needed when your wheel finds a certain groove in the sand. Don’t fight it, just flow.”

Stan: “When I pulled up to the start line on my fixed gear I had quite a bit of shade thrown my way. ‘Oh god there’s a roadie here’, ‘He doesn’t even have brakes’ are some choice remarks, and I was probably told about 50 times, ‘You’re going to be fixing flats the whole day’. I was confident though. But that confidence did wane a little as we set off out the back gate of Omuntu Garders, over a bridge made of pallets, and straight into the softest river bed sand of my skinny tire nightmares. So the first few hundred meters had a bit of stop-start riding as my tires dug into the sand but as soon as we cleared the river bed and headed out of town it was smooth sailing. We were on good fast gravel as the sun was rising right in front of us. Before too long we turned onto the farm’s singletrack network through a bunch of bell ringing and cheering supporters. We flew past to ‘Oh here’s the roadie’ and ‘Someone will pick you up when your tires are ruined!’ Despite the naysayers I’m glad to report that riding fixed gear on smooth-rolling Namibian singletrack is a blast!”

Donnet: “The extra small Giant I was on was equipped with very trendy wide handlebars that made every twist and turn on this new world of singletrack seem even more daunting than I could have imagined. I have a gravel bike with drop bars at home that I commute on. But this was my first stab at slightly technical singletrack. What ensued was my bitter complaints throughout the day about the ridiculousness these wide bars, and Stan regaling me with the cyclist’s inside joke of #WideBarWednesday. But no hashtag was going to make this day any easier, and apparently my bars weren’t even that wide.

Seven kilometers in, we reached the center of the universe: the Loskop Local coffee stop! Two Beards (one of the few local coffee roasters worth knowing about in these parts) had set up a super spread of freshly baked pastries, serving impeccable flat whites from their mobile coffee tuk-tuk. This was like finding a diamond in the desert (something else they tend to be good at here). Flat white in one hand and croissant in the other, I stood happily soaking up the morning sun. Julian, of Community Connect and Road to Desolation, let me in on some pastry gossip: Collyn, Dan’s wife and all round vibe-maker, wanted to make sure that we were all greeted at the coffee spot with the flakiest, Frenchest croissants possible. So weeks before the event, she coached some local bakers just how to layer up and roll the perfect, buttery pastries. This means that if you’re in search of the best croissant in Namibia from now on, you’ll need to head to Omaruru.”

Stan: “Of the 68 km of singletrack, I overheard Dan saying that if there are two routes everyone should do, it’s the technical Heliograph and the longer, but fast, Bobbejaan. He told me that the Heliograph route, leading to near the top of this prominent hill, was cut by hand by his late father and two generations of trail builders. They used pick axes to shape stone berms and channels, and cleared large rocks with car jacks, moving them inch by inch. Dan speaks of this trail as a physical memory of his father, and what he was up to in his last years on the farm while Dan was away, living abroad and racing internationally.

I rounded up Julian, on his Onguza gravel bike, and Nicky, riding his vintage Specialized Rockhopper. I was in good company. We shot off towards the base of the koppie, and around the eastern side. Soon the trail split and it was up, up, up for us along a series of switchbacks. It wasn’t too steep and surprisingly I could ride most of it despite my more road-friendly 51×19 setup. As we rose up it became clear why Loskop is the center of the event, and recommended for all to ride. The view over the flat plains that surround it is truly spectacular. As the terrain got rockier and more technical we encountered evidence of the famed work done by Dan’s father. If you pay attention and look ahead, you can see how he and the trail builders planned the route and had to move giant rocks to create little passages to slip through.”

Donnet: “So while they headed off on two wheels I set off on foot along the same path. It would be a seven-kilometer round trip, but I was eager to get to the top not long after the guys. About a kilometer in, I stopped just off the trail on a rocky outcrop, taking in the view. It was so silent, not a breath of wind. But the only thing I was thinking about was the story I was told the night before by a friend of Dan’s: ‘Just a few days ago I was out here on the koppie, trail running, and a leopard jumped right onto the trail in front of me!’ Apparently this was only the second time in years that the resident leopard had actually been seen, but spoor has been evident on the farm for years. A jumble of thoughts suddenly crossed my mind: Should I have come alone? Am I going to be OK? Yes, I was going to be OK because, right then, a clutch of e-bikers zoomed loudly past behind me.”

Stan: “By far the hardest part of the trail on my fixed gear was the very steep, loose and sketchy switchbacks on the way down the koppie. As you approach the sharp corners with no brakes, you have to lock your back wheel completely to try and slow down, but of course you’re just skidding on that thin road tire, often even picking up speed. Before you know it you’re at the turn, you’re going too fast, and you have to make sure your legs are locked in the correct orientation (if you have toe-overlap like me) to ensure your front facing foot is not going to block you from turning the opposite way. It’s a lot to think about. Fixed gear problems. If you know, you know…”

Donnet: “Ripped from my leopard reverie, I continued my hike up the hill and soon heard some whistling and echoes of song. At the highest point marked on the route, on a flat-ish slab of stone danced a choir of local men and women. Their jubilant melodies perforated by whistle shrieks that kept a steady beat. And if there’s a song, I’m usually up and dancing. The guys were catching their breath after climbing the last steep section of the course, while I attempted some subtle foot-shuffles. After a few dance numbers we bid farewell to the choir members and all made our way down. The barking of baboons followed us, and my guard was up again. But these are a truly wild bunch, running off way before you can come close. Very unlike the baboons we have around the mountains in the Cape who are so accustomed to humans that you have to watch your wallet.”

Donnet: “I agreed to join them on the Bobbejan loop. But within the first 500 metres I felt I was holding up the flow of fun to be had by the group and announced I would turn back and wait, under a tree with a cold beer in hand. Shushed by everyone, they egged me on—and so we were off. I watched as the group sped off round corners with an elegance that I one day wished I could muster. For now, I was a slow-poke. At times I had to step off the bike and clutter over some rocky bits. At other times, I came to swerving halts while I nervously laughed at this crazy bit of fun that I had agreed to. Always, I came round a corner to find Stan in a tiny patch of shade waiting for me while I mumbled to myself, “Oh shit, oh shit.” I chugged down as much Brave beer as I could at the midway ice bath stop, and then we were off again. I’m not sure if it was the beer, or me getting the hang of things, but the final stretch eased up and I was finally able to look up and enjoy the view for more than three seconds at a time.”

Stan: “The Bobbejaan loop was fast and had rolling twists and turns, perfect for a fixed gear dare I say! I could go fast! So fast I could definitely keep up with some mountain and gravel bikes. Of course, the corners were sketchy as hell: suddenly, my thin hard front tire would cut through the top crust, dip, and buck me into a soft sandy corner way too hot. The only thing that made this 16 km loop even better was an old bathtub, in the middle of nowhere, filled with huge chunks of ice and cold, cold beers! Dan really did think of everything. We chugged beers and doused ourselves with ice water, and by now there was a fair amount of positive interest in this strange bike of mine—haha!”

Donnet: “My riding day ended with me having a spectacular little lie down in the sand with my Giant. We really did get to know one another for a moment there. Stan and I also managed to get lost on the way back and had to jump a few farm fences. But most importantly we arrived back at Omuntu Gardens in time for three helpings of potato salad and fire-roasted chicken. And I was even awarded a locally-made handcast medal. I then, unceremoniously, pushed in front of some kids for another bowl of Collyn’s homemade ice cream before lazing about, listening to all the stories from the day.

As the sun was setting we forced our bodies out of the garden chairs, said our final goodbyes, and made our way home to shower and get ready—we still had a Johnny Cash Tribute Band show to get to at Wronsky Haus!”

Glossary of Afrikaans words used:

Bobbejaan: a baboon
Braai: a barbecue, or cooking anything on a fire
Koppie: a hill or small mountain
Lekker: even nicer than very nice
Loskop: literally ‘loose head’, but colloquially forgetful, or a bit crazy