The Calling: A Karoo Gravel Adventure, by Gary Barnard

Adventure is a relative thing, between trying a new chocolate bar and discovering the North Pole, humans seek adventure every day in every way.

Many years ago I happened across a group of adventurers that opened my eyes to a whole new type of challenge.

One that removed any safety nets and forced me over the edge and into the unknown. On that day, as I was ‘falling’, I opened my eyes and realized that once you let go of all expectations of how things should go — expectations of who should do what for you, expectations of what the world owes you — you magically grow wings and start to glide. That experience was at the Trans-Provence Enduro race in 2012. It is an event that changed me and set me on a new path — in my life and in cycling.  It taught me, that once you do a full-body trust fall into the knowledge that you are far stronger and more resourceful than you can imagine, a sense of freedom emerges that the warmth and comfort of contemporary living has protected us from.  All very serious and melodramatic but a fundamental truth to me and something when ignored burns its way through the lining of my persona and manifests as an increasing longing for release.

Enduro mountain biking and all-day Jonkershoek sessions are amazing but the easy roll to the valley floor when the day is done means that while it is dangerous and thrilling the clarity of thought that one gets when you realize you only have one choice and that is to keep moving are replaced by a blissful knowledge that there is warm food and a cold drink a few minutes away. Gravel bikes however promise something more. The ability to pick two places on the map and connect them using any manner of path, road, jeep track or the ever-elusive groad (a gravel road so smooth that it is faster than tarmac). South Africa with its wide-open spaces and great road network has endless opportunities for huge adventures of the gravel kind. But for yours truly, a guy who has spent his life on DH and Enduro bikes, I wondered if the gravel scene would carry the same calling as gravity riding.


The Plan

After many Whatsapp’s and calendar compares (yes we all have very full lives and don’t just ride bikes) we settled on a date and J-Rad set to work on the route. Day one would be a 170km long route of gravel and tar in the Karoo, taking us from Matjiesfontein to Sutherland. We would overnight in Sutherland and then ride 120km on a different route back to our cars in Matjiesfontein for the night. There would be no support vehicles, just a crew of 8 riders. The weather apps said September was the second driest month of the year and shouldn’t be too cold. This is my photo story:


Day One

Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The Lord Milner Hotel, the spiritual home of Karoo Gravel, were excellent hosts for the pre-game.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Fully packed and rolling into a misty cold Karoo morning, the forecast was for rain all day, we had prepared for the worst but were hoping for the best.  Luke Roberts letting off some steam with a long pull towards the horizon
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The route called for a 60km “warm-up”on the tar road to Sutherland.  The temperatures started to drop as the rain fell, with the Wahoo’s indicating 2 degrees the pace naturally slowed.  Wind chill and wet weather meant the “real feel” was minus 11.  There was a whisper going through the group that Sutherland was only 50km away up the tar road.  This was swiftly ignored, we had nowhere else to be and a day on the bike is what we all signed up for.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Space – Like most of us the level-5 lockdown had driven home to all of us that as cyclists we love space and to move through it under our own power.  The Karoo is what we’d all been longing for.  The few bakkies and trucks that passed us has all been extremely friendly and given us a huge amount of room, such a nice change from my commute in the city.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
What came first? The bike or the ride.  I had actually first decided I wanted to go and explore the karoo before I built up this Santa Cruz Stigmata.  I love Santa Cruz and the wide tyre clearance and light weight made this frame my first choice.  More on the bike in the bike check section.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Oliver Munnik, the O.G of gravel riding in his natural habitat.  Oli and I go way back to DH racing in the early 2000’s, the camaraderie that we share has been created over countless memorable days on the bike.  Today would be one of those.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Jaco Pelser’s bike: Rondo Ruut CF2 Black. Geosmina Bike Packing Cargo Bags on the fork and frame. Panaracer Gravel King rubber.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
This is what we came for, gravel is to road what single track is to mountain biking.  The constant searching for the perfect line quietens the background noise of the mind and frees the soul.  This was my first ever proper gravel ride, I think I jumped into the deep end.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Sheltering under a solar panel from the rain Oli and I were wondering what everyone was searching for?  I had perhaps jinxed us when I had said the Jarryd, we’ll be fine as long as we don’t have a big mechanical.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Charles Keey, a phenomenal gravel rider who last rode much of this route on his way to winning Karoobaix is busy crank in hand searching for a crank bolt! Not ideal when it’s freezing out, there is no cellphone reception and we are soaked to the bone.  Talk about a needle in a haystack.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
There it is! So the crank bolt is actually still in the crank.  What had happened is that the head of the self extracting bolt had sheered off leaving no material left to retain the crank.  That’s a proper mechanical on your local loop, out in the karoo without a support vehicle it could have been a disaster
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Inspired by the criticality of the situation we came up with an unbelievable day-saving hack.  We took the pedals washers of a bike and using a trusty leatherman maneuvered them over the crank bolt.  There was just enough material left on the crank bolt that we could get enough torque on the bolt to secure the crank.  We continued to stop every 10km to tighten the crank bolt and it held for the next 200km of riding.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Jarryd Haley, the organiser of the weekend and strong man of the group breathes a sigh of relief as we get rolling again.  Gravel riding can throw everything at you, always make sure you have a proper range of tools and can fix most things that can go wrong.  We had a space blanket, hard cash and extra food with us just in case things went pear shaped.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The rain lifts for a moment as Oli wrings out his gloves.  To be in the Karoo in the rain was a special experience, the smell of the veld and sight of rivulets flowing down usually dry river beds made us quickly forget our numb toes and hands.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The road to Ouberg pass usually rolls smooth and fast but the soaking rain had turned it into a soft surface that required loads of power to gain any speed.  Luckily the clouds hid what lay ahead, the climbing starts at just above 500m above sea-level and finishes at 1600m 55km later.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The Ouberg pass rises from the Tankwa karoo up the Roggeveld escarpment to the coldest town in South Africa, Sutherland.  It was created  as a main route up the escarpment but has been mostly abandoned now as everyone uses the tarred Verlatenkloof pass.  This makes it perfect for a gravel adventure as it offers a rare opportunity to settle into over an hour of climbing on quiet roads.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Charlie and I starting to feel the 100km in the legs
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Jarryd with style for miles.  Most of us were crying for easier gear while Jarryd was making it look easy.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Luke looking happy as the rain had stopped and his body was warming up, Charly head-down, he has been up here before and knew we had a long-long way to go.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Oli and Chris Wolhuter.  Chris holds the Strava KOM up Ouberg, a time he set on his way to winning the Transkaroo race and paying the deposit on his bond.  Unfortunately he couldn’t beat his time up the pass as he had to hold-back on the watts to save that sketchy crank-bolt
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Liam Somers, an incredible athlete who consistently punches out the kilometers year-in-year out disappears into the mist and the freezing temperatures
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
It was a big day!
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Ouberg Pass summit, a bucket list milestone for any gravel rider wanting to explore the karoo.  We’ll all be back to take in the endless views that stretch across the Karoo, and on a clear day, to Ceres in the distance.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The last 40km to Sutherland would be the hardest of the day.  The temperatures dropped, the wind picked up and the roads became incredibly slow.  We were slogging it out at 10-15kph where Chris and Charlie had rolled at 30kph in better conditions, mentally that can break you and with close to 100km of gravel now behind us we all started to dig deep.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun” is the motto of this crew.  It took over 5 minutes to get my phone out of my pocket to get this shot as I couldn’t feel any of my fingers.  In fact typing this now a week later I still have a tiny bit of numbness in a few finger tips.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Never take yourself too seriously, it’s a bike ride and we are choosing to do this. Pushing yourself is good for your soul and gives a depth of appreciation for everyday things that you won’t take for granted again.  Fresh water, dry hands, a warm shower all comforts that one can easily take for granted become appreciated for the luxuries that they are.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The end of the gravel for today
Yes! Gravel, you are rad but we were all so happy to see the tar and the 2km roll into Sutherland

Day Two

Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Day 2 kicked of with no rain and warmer temperatures forecasted.  Morale was high after a Karoo breakfast with lamb chops, sausage, bacon, eggs and oats on the menu.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Quick stop to eat one of the bananas that would “Never fall off” of the saddle bag.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The route for day was easier with drying roads and a big elevation drop off the escarpment, the group were mostly feeling good except for some sore knees after grinding the 42-42’s over Ouberg.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The 40km grind to the escarpment was another “easy roll” that had us on the ropes.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Fuel stop number 3 125.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Line choice is equally important on gravel bikes.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Jaco Pelser’s setup involves a third waterbottle in Apidura’s feeder pouch with a JBL hidden away for some Afrika Burn inspired tunes.
The views are incredible.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
So sometimes you just have to stop and take it all in.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
As we crested the escarpment and the calls for “take it easy we don’t want a load of punctures” faded off into the distance, we rallied down at 60kph. This is about the time I was starting to really get into this drop bar off-road thing.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Oli empties a bottle that rattled out of Charlies bike, a move Charlie is famous for.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Former professional Chris Wolhuter tucking into the fuel.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Morale peaking as we regroup after the descent
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The Pinner in his natural habitat.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Heads down okes, heads down. This is RAD.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Liam, at 34 years older than the youngest rider, nothing to complain about except just riding more and more please. Yes, he’s more than double the age of the youngest rider on the trip but sure has powa. – Jaco
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Endless smooth gravel roads in hidden valleys, no cars, a tail wind and great company.  That’s the promise of a Karoo gravel adventure.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Big skies and endless views
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Lukalicious, another descendant from the KZN mountain biking community, who’s eyes have sparkled at the idea of gravel for a very long time.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The newest team member of Switchback Sports, ex-pro Luke Roberts and boss man Charles Keey.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Jarryd and I stoked after a 70kph gravel descent.  I raced with Jarryd on the DH bike for years before he switched to XC and now he does it all.  That’s the thing that sometimes people miss, its not about the type of bike that ride it’s about how much you love being outside on two wheels, most of this crew do it all.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Downhill back to Matjiesfontein with the dirty bikes telling the story of 2 days well spent
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
The fast guy at East City Cycles. Jarryd Haley doesn’t ever hold back on style points. A mixture of denim with hiking equipment sure wins the best-dressed competition.
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
“Thank you Oli, it was you that got me to open my eyes to the possibilities beyond gravity riding” was what I was saying right there
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Full crew
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
Finally, back in Matjiesfontein, the local petrol pump says it all – No Fuel!
Gary Barnard rides his Santa Cruz Stigmata gravel bike through the Karoo in South Africa
A quick change in the Matjiesfontein main/only road and we were back in the cars and on the way home.

The End

The gravel scene in South Africa is full of people who just like gravity riders, love bikes. They have also discovered the freedom that these bikes encourage. Just like any scene you need to be humble and acknowledge that you have a lot to learn and with that attitude the gravel gurus open up and start sharing many hard-earned insights.  It also helps that I have raced downhill with two of the gravel grinding legends Oliver Munnik and Jarryd Haley and via those connections have become good friends with the East City Cycles and Switchback Sports crew. These guys are the heart and soul of the Cape Town gravel crew and have many trips under their belt. Thanks for a great weekend. Oh, and the answer is an emphatic yes: for me, Gravel riding in the Karoo is as rad as any Enduro race, just different.


| IMAGES: Gary Barnard, Jaco Pelser & Oliver Munnik |

| WORDS: Gary Barnard & Jaco Pelser |


Matjiesfontein: the Start and Finish town

Matjiesfontein is about as pretty and quirky a town as you’ll ever find.  The excellent Lord Milner Hotel, the museum, road-side petrol pumps, tennis courts are all straight out of a movie set from the 19th century.  It is worth a visit in its own right.  



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