Road to Desolation: Gravel Racing Across the Karoo

The Karoo is not flat, both in personality and profile. The Road to Desolation gravel race seeks to capture the essence of the Karoo—the idiosyncratic small towns, the solitude of its expanse, and the way the bicycle represents the ideal vehicle for navigating the internal and external challenges of the terrain. Simon Pocock photographed the inaugural edition of the event in 2023 and writes about the Karoo’s imposing appeal.

The Karoo is hard to explain. It carries all forms of assumptions from across South Africa, and afar. For most, it is a dry and arid place, extremely hot in summer, and abandoned by most trees for its harsh climate. Drought comes and goes in the folklore of seven-year cycles, leaving the landscape sad and sedentary right before the rain arrives to relieve the earth of such a weight, kickstarting the scrublands back into life.

The towns scattered across the Great Karoo bring both fascination and a challenging history, spanning centuries of mostly Afrikaans, English, and originally indigenous African communities. Much of the architecture and town planning is preserved from the Western settlers of yesteryear.

These small towns carry a mystical attraction for many people. Traditional farming still dominates the landscape, however more and more people seek solitude and isolation in these bucolic locales, retreating from the normality and convenience of big city life. Out here there is a quiet clash between strong communal ties and those that prefer to be left alone. Similarly, this rich and layered paradox speaks to many sportspeople; men and women hurtling towards the unknown, both together and alone.

Many cycling races have become too generic, often forgetting about their unique locations, personalities, and communities. The charm of vintage racing hangs on by a thread. And, while technology has allowed for exponential growth in the sport, there is a balance to be sought between yesteryear and today, between the historic small towns and their communities, the racers drawn to the challenge of endurance sport on modern-day gravel bikes, and the ancient landscapes that predate them all.

When Julian Robinet reached out about documenting a race across the Karoo, and trying to capture the visual narrative that is so naturally presented out in that wild place, immediately I was all in. A narrative that resonates so strongly with many of those in this sport; a constant search for the simple things that mean something.

A cinematographer himself and avid cyclist, Julian wanted to host a race with a strong visual identity and insisted upon experimentation and play with the imagery we created. Katy, his wife and partner in the event, made all the decor by hand, paying careful attention to the choice of colors, textures, and designs. Jared Paisley was on board to produce a beautiful piece of film for the event and together we set off from Cape Town North East to create a collective body of work.

Saturday morning arrived, in an honest and quiet town somewhere in the middle of South Africa. A small and considered bunch of cycling folk converged upon Somerset Street in Graaff Reinet, ready to wrestle with the long road ahead by traversing the 179-kilometer gravel course through the African Karoo. The weather was very out of character: rain and cold meant that everybody involved had to adjust their strategy for the day ahead.

The roads were all dirt except for a few mandatory miles of tar and, for the most part, were rather unwrinkled. However the route carried all the pickings of a fine adventure; technical descents that shook the handlebars wildly, even cracking a couple rims, and sending one gentleman to the ground and out of the race. River crossings en masse forced riders to dismount and stride through the muddy water, bicycles afloat on tired arms.

This is the Road to Desolation, a physical and mental challenge that ends in a summit finish after traveling through unforgettable landscapes, remote vistas, and a variety of seldom-frequented back roads. The town of Graaf Reinet, home to the race, sits at roughly 750 masl (2,460 ft). Riders would ascend a total of 2,773 m across the day before a steep and unforgiving 7 km final climb sends them to the finish atop the valley of Desolation, where ancient dolerite spires rise skyward from the ground below.

Rain, clouds, and mud wouldn’t stop this band of adventurers from embracing the challenging journey of the inaugural race across the Camdeboo plains of the Karoo. Riders are almost guaranteed to spot wildlife during their time moving through the the Camdeboo National Park, numerous types of antelope, warthog, and giraffe, which are slow to retreat when the quiet and unassuming bicycles float through their turf.

As gravel riding continues to grow internationally, South Africa seems to be fostering its own piece of the puzzle. Our country is blessed with endless dirt roads, mountain passes and wild landscapes waiting to be traversed by bicycle. The Road to Desolation is clearly much more than just another race. Not everyone is competing for the top spot, many of the riders are there for the challenge and the personal journey across the wide open landscape. They savored the hospitality of small town living, both within the communities on the route and the hometown of Graaf Reinet.

On the day, the racing would be honored by a handful of riders at the front, with a final hill sprint to make Marc Pritzen the victor. In the ladies’ race, Hayley Preen, esteemed South African road champ and Cape Epic rider, would take the top step after riding alone for most of the day!

For most of us though it was about so much more than the racing. It was a chance to disconnect from the busyness of city life and reconnect with nature, ourselves, and our sense of community. The weather swept across the valley from dawn to dusk and the clouds that enveloped the top of the climb never quite subsided. A fitting end to an extremely challenging journey across the Karoo, instead of the beautiful views that the riders were hoping to receive they arrived soaked and sodden, cold to the bone and somewhat shellshocked at the mix of climates and environments they had just traveled through.

The curtains closed on the first completion of the event with a lavish dinner at the local Graaf Reinet club, a true Karoo establishment, featuring memorabilia and stories from generations past. The winners were celebrated by all and the community shared in their stories from the day’s journey.