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Touring South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, Big Game Country and Winelands

Christopher P. BakerFebruary 08, 2016
The 2015 Indian Roadmaster basks at sunrise amid the vineyards of the Grande Roche Hotel, Paarl.

The 2015 Indian Roadmaster basks at sunrise amid the vineyards of the Grande Roche Hotel, Paarl.

Arriving at Bucklands Private Game Reserve conjured up Jurassic Park déjà vu. An electric fence loomed overhead and the massive metal gate wore a huge sign: WARNING! WILD ANIMALS CROSSING AND NO FENCE. I pushed the gate closed behind me, slammed shut the bolt, then hauled myself back into the saddle. The 2015 Indian Roadmaster is a rhino of a bike, but the chance of encountering a real rhino lumbering out of the bush had me spooked. My nerves tingled as I eased out the silk-smooth clutch for the two-mile run to the lodge.

“Many of our visitors come by motorcycle,” owner Michele Stewart had assured me. She must have been speaking of BMW GSAs and other dual-sports. Barely one hundred yards along the track, I hit pools of gravel and sand. Soon I was crawling the behemoth uphill over rock ledges sprinkled with scree. The suspension soaked up the hammering. And the controls proved perfectly calibrated, light and fluid, as I feathered the throttle and clutch to maintain momentum. Slow and steady: “If I go down here, I’m in trouble!” I was soaked in sweat when I finally pulled up to the quaint farmstead lodge.

Five days into my 10-day tour of South Africa I was awed. My route between Cape Town and the “Big Game Country” of Eastern Cape province was kaleidoscopically scenic. And my ride—a cherry-red-and-cream Roadmaster loaner—seemed inspired. South Africa is big bike nirvana. Every second bike I passed was either a BMW GS or Harley tourer, but it was the Roadmaster’s svelte lines that excited double takes, like a cheetahs’ envy. The bike’s tapered artistry is a genius of iconic retro design. But how would this humongous ride handle the hairpin curves of the province’s coastline? Ensconced in a plump saddle behind a full-shield fairing, would I feel like I was riding a barbeque grill through the Little Karoo? And would the torquey 111-cubic-inch Thunder Stroke engine do the job if I needed to outrun a lion?

The lodge at Gorah Elephant Camp.

The lodge at Gorah Elephant Camp.

CAPE PENINSULA

I’d begun in Cape Town by heading south to the Cape of Good Hope. Acres of wraparound fairing shoved aside the surprisingly chill autumn air as I pushed south along the M6 highway. The bike powered effortlessly up through cliff-face curves, and then traced graceful switchback arcs as the road drilled down to Hout Bay. Farther south, the scenery resembled California’s Big Sur on steroids! Clouds poured over a scalloped coastal massif towering above wind-scoured beaches and fishing harbors roiled by mists. The road wound up and over headlands girt with ethereal patches of fog before auguring down to Simon’s Town, a chic colonial-era resort.

After stopping to photograph the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, I leaned through the hairpins that delivered me onto the wind-whipped Cape headland. Enshrined within Table Mountain National Park, the cape is shrouded with endemic heath—fynbos. A hartebeest sprang across my path. Then I passed a troop of baboons in the road. Signs warned motorists that baboons are dangerous. With their long dog-like snouts and fearsome fangs, they looked far from benign. Still, I couldn’t resist the photo op. I dismounted, shot a few frames of bike-with-baboons, and roared off before a simian could leap onto the passenger seat.

The encounter prompted a taste for more serious game, so I turned the bike east for the coastal city of Port Elizabeth—gateway to Eastern Cape province, with its dozens of national parks and game reserves sprinkled with deluxe lodges and safari camps.

 The 2015 Indian Roadmaster at dawn outside the Grande Roche Hotel, Paarl.

The 2015 Indian Roadmaster at dawn outside the Grande Roche Hotel, Paarl.

THE GARDEN ROUTE

I ran hard along the so-called “Garden Route,” an anomalous name for the well-paved, fast-paced N2 highway, which unfurled via Swellendam through pastoral landscapes framed dramatically to the north by the Langeberg Mountain Range. The Roadmaster soaked up the miles, delivering me by sundown at Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve, a thatched nature lodge cocooned in misty dwarf montane forest outside Knysna. Vervet monkeys scampered among the branches as I headed to the rustic restaurant, lit by lanterns. “I like to combine creativity and sensation,” Chef Robyn Stein told me, explaining her menu of “rainbow cuisine,” merging multicultural influences with kudu, gemsbok and other quintessential South African produce. I relished my Moroccan-spiced ostrich carpaccio with griddled eggplant, followed by a divine pistachio chocolate tartlet with pomegranate white chocolate sauce. Three days into my trip, South Africa was proving a gourmand’s delight.

Firing up the big V-twin, I continued east to Plettenberg Bay, beyond which the N2 curled uphill, inland, to slingshot through a flat wilderness of dense subtropical thicket. The miles flew by. When the fuel warning light came on, I grew nervous. South African riders lack the “hail fellow” camaraderie of the USA. No one waved. I figured if I ran out of gas here I was on my own. I’d ridden 215 miles (well beyond the Roadmaster’s expected range) when I finally gassed up in Humansdorp.

Ranger Werner LeRoux admires a herd of elephant at Gorah Private Game Reserve.

Ranger Werner LeRoux admires a herd of elephant at Gorah Private Game Reserve.

BIG GAME COUNTRY

Beyond Port Elizabeth—a desultory industrial port city—I cut north along the N10 and turned west for Addo Elephant National Park. South Africa’s third largest national park is pachyderm paradise, with the world’s densest population of tuskers. Barely a mile up the rutted dirt road I spotted my first jumbos, plus giraffe, ostrich and zebras. “Yesterday two lions chased off a cheetah,” said the gatekeeper at the entrance for Gorah Elephant Camp. “Right here, by the gate!” Was he joking? Nearby, a sign read: “Motorcyclists may be exposed to dangerous animals.” I gladly parked the bike and transferred by 4×4 vehicle to the deluxe tent camp, centered on a converted Victorian farmstead adorned with animal heads and antiques. My opulent walk-in tent-suite was as sumptuously appointed as any city hotel, with a vast shower and freestanding bathtub to wash off the dust after sunrise and sunset safaris.

“No walking alone after dusk,” my guide, Werner LeRoux, told me with deadly earnest. I soon learned why. Next dawn, I cracked open my door to see three hyenas creep by. They were followed by a thunderous growl—a lion?—that made my hair stand on end as I rushed down the boardwalk linking my suite to the lodge.

A bull elephant seen on safari at sunrise, Kwande Private Game Reserve.

A bull elephant seen on safari at sunrise, Kwande Private Game Reserve.

After two days, I left Gorah and rode through a veil of cold rain to Grahamstown. Beyond, R67 zigzagged up and over the Edda Pass, delivering me in brilliant sunshine at Kwande Private Game Reserve and the sumptuous Great Fish River Lodge. With nowhere to park the bike at the entrance, I was escorted at high speed by a 4×4 along the dirt road that led to reception. “Don’t stop!” I was told. No kidding! Adrenaline fueled my ride.

Come morning, while on safari, I was sobered by two lionesses lying in a pool of shade on the road. Motorcyclists, I mused, mimic antelope to apex predators, notwithstanding the Roadmaster’s self-assured lion’s growl. That night I slept fitfully after watching a blood-soaked sunset fit for a Hollywood epic as three young lions ripped apart an unlucky eland. No road ever felt as lonely as the dirt track that led me to neighboring Bucklands the next day, where I completed my Big Five viewing with up-close-and-personal safari encounters with rhinos.

The view over the Winelands from the Grande Roche Hotel, Paarl.

The view over the Winelands from the Grande Roche Hotel, Paarl.

LITTLE KAROO AND WINELANDS

I retraced my route via Port Elizabeth to Oudtshoorn—ostrich capital of the world—then turned north on R328 and corkscrewed up through the fog-bound Schoemanshoek Pass for a night at Swartberg Country Manor. Westward, I ran along Route 62 through the semi-arid Little Karoo. Talk about jaw-dropping grandeur! Clouds tumbled over the plum purple Swartberg Mountains that cusped the vale, studded with thatched Cape Dutch farmsteads incandescent amid fields gilded by yellowing poplars.

A small remote pub scrawled with the words ‘RONNIE’S SEX SHOP’ pulled me up sharp outside Barrydale. Many a weary biker has done the same at this desert pit stop. “I opened it as a grocery in 1989,” owner Ronnie Price—a former farmer—told me through his long Gandalf-like beard. Then his jokester pals painted ‘SEX’ between the words ‘RONNIE’S SHOP,’ he explained. The coup drew curious passersby, so Ronnie added a now-world-famous pub to his nowheresville food store where you can get a snack and a T-shirt. Women’s underwear festoons the bar, but there’s nothing else sold or going on to justify the name.

Ronnie Price with the Roadmaster at Ronnnie’s Sex Shop.

Ronnie Price with the Roadmaster at Ronnnie’s Sex Shop.

At Montagu, I diverted onto the R60, then headed south on the R43 for Villersdorp. Beyond, I skirted the Theewaterskloof reservoir on the R321 and turned north for the Franschhoek Pass. Clawing up the switchbacks, it was hard to imagine that in colonial times this pass was known as Oliphants Hoek for the great elephant herds that seasonally crossed these mountains (snowbound in winter) resembling the whisky-brown Scottish Highlands. Beyond the summit, the R45 unspooled steeply to tight hairpins offering astounding views over a sprawling patchwork of vineyards. I spiraled down to Franschhoek, the chicest town in Cape Winelands with its trendy restaurants and bars and old-world wine estates characterized by centenary Cape Dutch buildings.

I continued to Paarl (the third-oldest town in South Africa) for a final night of luxury at the Grande Roche Hotel. Oozing elegant yesteryear charm, this member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World boasts sweeping vistas over rows of grapevines. The next morning, I rode the Roadmaster into the vineyard to photograph it bathed in the golden sunlight of dawn. Then I hit the ignition and aimed the bike west on the N1 for cloud-draped Cape Town and the end of a perfect South African Cape Provinces loop.

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

A menagerie of wildlife at Kwande and Gorah Private Game Reserves.

A menagerie of wildlife at Kwande and Gorah Private Game Reserves.

A menagerie of wildlife at Kwande and Gorah Private Game Reserves.

A menagerie of wildlife at Kwande and Gorah Private Game Reserves.

A menagerie of wildlife at Kwande and Gorah Private Game Reserves.

A menagerie of wildlife at Kwande and Gorah Private Game Reserves.

“Beware of Lions!” sign at Gorah Private Game Reserve.

“Beware of Lions!” sign at Gorah Private Game Reserve.

The Roadmaster at Grand Roche Hotel, Paarl.

The Roadmaster at Grand Roche Hotel, Paarl.

Chef Robyn SteIn displays a gourmet dessert at Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve.

Chef Robyn SteIn displays a gourmet dessert at Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve.

The lobby at the Taj Cape Town Hotel.

The lobby at the Taj Cape Town Hotel.

A tent-suite at Gorah Elephant Camp.

A tent-suite at Gorah Elephant Camp.

Model Kim Robinson with the 2015 Indian Roadmaster outside the Taj Cape Town Hotel.

Model Kim Robinson with the 2015 Indian Roadmaster outside the Taj Cape Town Hotel.

he author’s suite at Great Fish River Lodge, Kwande Private Game Reserve.

he author’s suite at Great Fish River Lodge, Kwande Private Game Reserve.

The Roadmaster beside the wharf at Houk Bay.

The Roadmaster beside the wharf at Houk Bay.

A sea lion swimming in the harbor at Houk Bay.

A sea lion swimming in the harbor at Houk Bay.

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