Friday, 21 April 2017

Weekend Ride : Johannesburg to Clarens

The Honda NC700X among the mountains of Clarens, South Africa

This is my second visit to South Africa (SA in short) and to give you a recap of my last one, I had planned to rent a motorcycle in Cape Town, when I was there around 2 years ago. Well, that didn't work out, as I just had a week in hand and some last minute work related issue cropped up over the only weekend I had there. So this time, when I got an opportunity to visit SA again, I was very determined to ride. But again Johannesburg (where I am at right now), still don't seem to have many options (or at least I couldn't find any good ones), when it comes to renting a middleweight tourer. The options are limited to BMW GS series and mostly the 800 and 1200, and these offerings aren't that affordable either. While I was discussing my ride plan with Yesh (my colleague, who also rides) and how I am not able to find any decent options in Jozi, he offered me to take his bike for the weekends. He has swapped his car for a Honda NC700X, as his daily ride to work, which has reduced the travel time by half. The same case is with me living in Bangalore. For the very same reason, I have started riding my motorcycle to the office again lately, at least few times a month. So his ride is not used over the weekends, as he uses his car for traveling or running errands around town. Now that was a great news, as weekends were the only time when I would prefer to ride or trip anyway! So this was just perfect :) Thanks to the generosity of Yesh, I finally had gotten a ride for my trip after all.


Modern day gadgetry for the ride. Not at all necessary, but makes my ride so much fun.

After a bit of inquiry on possible riding destinations, Rupin (a rider and a co-worker; in that order!) suggested a location named Clarens. It was a decent 300+ km from Joburg and seemed to be in the mountains. I readily agreed the moment I heard the term 'mountains' and committed myself a visit here when I saw some pictures of the place online. But ever since this plan brewed up, the bad weather had become a sore patch on my otherwise shiny (and sunny!) dream of exploring this unique country. I had 4 days in hand, thanks to Good Friday and Easter holidays here. Not only a stormy weather with heavy rain was my concern, but also all the other unknown variables like road condition on this route, riding conditions (traffic, tolls, check-posts etc) got me thinking. So even though the distance of 400 km in a day (on the higher side) is nothing new for me, it's the unknown variables, i.e. the bike, the weather, the road condition, safety concerns, basically everything about the trip kept me in a dilemma up until the Friday morning, when I was supposed to start. So despite the noise in my head, I just got the engine roaring and rolled off my hotel premises, with the dogged determination, that am gonna do the trip anyway.

The night before the trip (on Thursday), the top box was packed and ready for a 3 nighter (though it witnessed just 1)

So I had to do some preparation to be able to do some wet weather riding. Now I wasn't carrying all my riding gear during this visit. So few things I had to get/buy, which were as follows:
  1. Waterproof over-trousers
  2. Waterproof iphone case (to allow it the phone to be used as GPS)
  3. Phone/GPS mount for the handlebar
  4. Pair of rugged and waterproof boots
I shopped for these items, just the day before the ride. So had to find local stores which stocked these products and drove there with a friend to pick 'em up. I was all sorted by Thursday evening. For your reference, here is the list of items that made it to the Honda's top box:


Packing checklist

Rain (and storm) was the assured prediction, but I guess I was really lucky. I didn't have to deal with much rain, rather, from the moment of my start from my hotel room to the time, I made it back, the weather was picture perfect. Though cloudy at times and a few drops of water here and there, but nothing serious. Roads were crispy dry and I had a blast riding. It did rain cats and dogs though in Joburg on the day of the ride, but an hour after I left the city. With that said, despite the weather being on my side, I chose to ride only for 2 days out of the 4 I had in hand. I decided to skip Durban (to avoid heavy traffic on the return route to Jozi), which was part of my extended ride plan for the remaining 2 days. Maybe I should save the pre-ride/boring details for now and let the images do their job ;) So here it goes..

This was the point in the Firday morning after which, rain was a certainty!


Cloudy weather and the corresponding overcast, allowed me to capture the black colour honda in good detail :) There is always a brighter side (or so to speak) to every situation!


Bare essential for riding in a new/unknown country; Navigation!

First stopover en-route. Found the safe/enough space on the side, felt safe to pull over, without getting too close to the vehicle zipping past (at speeds of 150 KM/h)


Another stop to admire the vast landscape this South African route had to offer.

The vanishing point of the road in this particular location, it reminded me of the Indian state of Meghalaya, which is a plateau and so is most of South Africa (which ironically, I realised only during this trip!)


Beautiful blue sky, clean crops and a never ending road; these were the elements which were constant all through my journey. It was beautiful enough to keep me engulfed.


My first fuel stop. This came at a point when the fuel gauge was showing the last bar and I was not really up for an adventure with 'THAT' at least. Lucky me, I noticed this by the side of the road and pulled over. This place was called Helbron.


Not sure what was the difference, other than the colour of the crops here, which was white. Or were they just hay? :/ Not sure.


Over the next hundred kilometers, I had some good breaks on the way, however without any major diversions.

This was the first major diversion on the way; towards Bethlehem.


After riding for miles, this was the first sighting of a mountain, ehm.. hill?! well, whatever! It brought a lot of excitement and also the possibility that there are mountains are ahead!


It totally deserved a second look :)

But soon they vanished and the terrain becomes flatter. But thankfully, not for long! :) Keep scrolling to find out.

The cruising speed had already dropped from 135 to 110 without me easing of the throttle. Which simply because we were actually climbing up the terrain and the motorcycle was possible feeling a tad bit stressed to maintain such speed here. I was already feeling colder, despite the thick riding jacket and leather gloves.


A poster shot of the capable and comfy, Honda NC700X.


For a rider/biker, such signs are so encouraging ;) I was already stretching my legs for some serious cornering ahead :D

The first and only off-road route I took during this trip :) All thanks to the BnB/farmhouse that I couldn't locate. I am glad that I tried and came across this off-road stretch, on which I could have some fun riding.

So after having a blast in the dirt, when I was done (not really!), I decided to head into the city of Clarens and check out the second BnB on my list. It was a vintage farmhouse with self-catering facilities. Why I fell for these? Blame it to these pictures of the place in TripAdvisor :)

So I reached there, parked the bike in the shade and took off my helmet to get some fresh air. The place was so green, shaded and quite, that I absolutely loved the ambiance. The added satisfaction was partly due to the wind noise for last 300+ Kms that I was listening to (along with the music from my headset). Seing this place so quite, I realized that possibly no guests were there. So I started looking for the staff to do the booking formalities. After looking around a bit, I couldn't figure out the reception desk/room, so gave a call on the number written on the welcome board. It turned out that they were fully booked for the next 4 days (i.e. the whole of the long weekend). It was a new lesson to learn about the weekend scenarios at Clarens. It seems they get a good amount of visitors on usual weekends as well. Considering the quality of road till here was in great shape, it is indeed a weekend getaway destination for people in Joburg. Hence it's common to find the hotels and BnBs booked even during usual weekends.

Second (non-typical) accommodation I had planned to stay but had not booked. Though I am glad I gave it a visit in person. It was totally worth a visit.


The boulevard that led to the entrance of this self-catering BnB at Clarens.

By this time, I was done with the two options I had chosen and didn't really want to stay anywhere else. So I just took a break and started skimming Booking.com app and searched for a night halt close by. That's when I came across 'Fouriesburg Country Inn', which was roughly 35 KM away. I still had a good part of the day and sunny weather on my side so decided to ride further (west) to Fouriesburg and check out this place, which looked quite vintage and classy from the pictures. I got a booking confirmation from the app and gave me an option to pay at the hotel. All I knew was, for sure, I would end up in a good place before sun down. With this, I started riding west, towards Fouriesburg (still without a proper booking of sorts).

On the way to Fouriesburg, came across this swarm of tents with group of youngsters (I guess) chilling out. The road was covered with parked cars on both sides. First thought was, some music concert must be happening, but didn't find any stage close by.


For me personally, camping is about being away from the modern day distractions, but this place right here didn't look anything of that sort.


The route started getting scenic again, even after leaving the beautiful Clarens.


The view was breathtaking.. these were not the biggest or grandest looking mountains, but the terrain was unique and beautiful.


A close-up shot of the Honda with the mountains in the backdrop.

A rusty old barricade to separate the road from the cliff.


View on the left side of the road.


The nice weather was complementing the view.


Notice the rocky structures. 

Again after few kilometers, the mountains vanished and I was back to the vast flat lands. Out of nowhere, this came up. It reminded me of the rocky structures of Arizona state highway (US). No, I haven't been there, but have seen tons of photos those unique rocky structures before. 

Here is a pic of the American highway from the internet for reference:



Now back to the South African interstate highway and the rocky structures that adorn this route.


Continuing towards Fouriesburg, I found every variation of the terrain quite amusing. Especially the sense of space and vastness was kinda liberating.

By around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I made it to the hotel and got myself a room. It was a beautiful vintage accommodation with decorated interiors and a nicely maintained dining space cum restaurant inside. I found a parking for my motorcycle at the back of the property and just kept the bike in a corner to avoid obstructing any cars or SUVs being parked there.

As it was a busy weekend, the only room they had was a family room, which I had booked through Booking.com. It cost me ZAR 750, excluding breakfast (which I realized while checking out). Anyway, let's have a look at the accommodation first and then to other nice-to-have bits of this property.

Main bedroom with an attached bathroom.


The not-so-ignorable part of the room.


Ah and the bathtub! Nothing beats a bathtub session after a day of hardcore riding :)


Lastly the entrance space with bunk beds for the kids (remember, it's a family room!) with its own attached bathroom and a shower enclosure.

This center space cum sitting area was nice :) It was so cold here despite the bright (looking) sun. I sat here for a while after checking my luggage in.


Dining space was a decently large hall with around 8 such tables fully set up for fine dining experience.


While I was waiting for my lunch to be served.

After my lunch, I got straight into the bed wrapped up in two warm blankets. It was so cold! I barely felt like stepping out. I was not really prepared for this much cold. Then again, the comfy bed gave me enough rest for another day of riding and exploring. I think I watched some movie in the evening on tv and then was surfing the internet on my phone. I remember checking the weather forecast for the next day and also spoke with Yesh to get some traffic stats on Durban for the weekend, just in case I chose to ride in that direction. Yesh was sure that Durban route would be quite busy due to the long weekend and hence may not be a good idea to ride there at this time. And with all honesty, it would've been actually challenging for me to filter through heavy traffic in a country am not yet fully experienced with. I had come across few tight spots on my way while leaving Joburg and I was not that comfortable doing it. Maybe it would take me some more time to get used to, driving between cars here, provided I live here long enough. So finally after all considerations, I decided to skip the plan for riding to Durban and instead decided to ride around Clarens, before returning back to Joburg. This put me at ease, as I knew what to expect in tomorrow's ride and could feel more confident about the route, the road and my capability to handle all of this. With the plan for the next day set, I could doze off in time. Oh yes, I did all my packing before I went to sleep so that I could start early. I wish the room was a bit warmer though. I had to wear my northface hoodie, later on, to cope with the cold night at Fouriesburg Inn.

A Beautiful Sunny Saturday Morning:

Had a great sleep and I was up by 6:30 in the morning, just waiting for the breakfast buffet to be ready. Once I was done with the breakfast, myself and NCX were ready to roll. The bike was completely wet with dew, as it was parked outside without a roof or shelter. So I had to dry off the seats and handlebars with a towel. 

The safe parking spot I had picked, ensured the motorcycle stayed away from the bigger vehicles.


Morning sun shining brightly over the Honda's windshield.


As there was no charging port on this particular motorcycle, I had to make do with this power bank setup. Neat, eh ?! ;)


During check out, I enquired about how much the same booking would have cost me, had I booked directly by calling them. Much to my surprise, the amount they said was much lesser than I had paid through Booking.com. It was ZAR 600 including breakfast. So effectively ZAR 200 less was what I paid. This learning was totally worth that extra 200 I would say. Next time if am traveling around here, here are two rules to follow:-
  • Try calling a hotel/BnB directly for a quotation first, before booking through any travel app
  • Book the room in advance for a weekend stay at Clarens (or any close by area like Fouriesburg)


With that said, I had some chat with the lady at the reception, who confirmed that I am going to witness some of the greenest views during my ride ahead to the National Park. During winters, locals set fire to the shrubs and grasses making the whole place look gray and dull. However, at this time, they were really fresh and green, this was partly due to the recent rains.

Farewell shot at the Fouriesburg Country Inn


What a beautiful day to ride on this part of the country :) 


Today was the day I had to return to Joburg, but before that, I decided to give a visit to the 'Golden Gate National Park' around 45 KMs from my hotel, after crossing Clarens on the way. So I started riding in that direction with the GPS set. It was so cold in the morning that I had to wear the hoodie inside my thick motorcycle jacket and a pair of knuckle length gloves inside my leather riding gloves. Only then I could maintain a riding speed of 100 or sometimes a little over that. But the freshness of the morning sun and the beautiful view was totally worth it.


Some berry-like fruits on the side of the road.


Filling fuel for my long return trip to Joburg.


Visitor count was increasing, as the day progressed.

Took the same exit, to head towards Clarens and then to Jozi.

On the way back, I decided to ride a bit inside Clarens and take a look around. That's when this lively and bustling flea market caught my attention. A large ground full of a variety of stalls selling stuff like leather, crafts, paintings, handmade jewelry, wooden products, clothes, you name it. I enjoyed checking out some of the stalls and picked up few interesting bits and bobs for friends and family.


This is just one corner (5-10%) of the ground visible in this shot.


Another side of the ground.


This store had a lot of recommendation on Trip Advisor and I can confirm that it stands true. Sadly they don't allow photographs to be taken inside, so you have to visit yourself, to know why they are so popular. Basically, the quirky gifts sold inside are very handmade, unique and different. They also have a furniture section inside this same shop. Prices for items were reasonable, not that expensive.



Once I was done roaming around the market and had picked up few gifts/souvenirs, I was ready for my long ride home.


My stop on the way for cup of hot chocolate :)


Nice small gift shop and restaurant with an ATV trail nearby

As I waited for my cup of hot chocolate to arrive.

View from the spot I could walk up to, to get close to the mountains.


Inside the gift/crafts shop.


The counter at the entrance had the basic things anyone passing through may look for.


See that bus over there ?!! That made me turn around and come back here to see what they got. Otherwise, there were many fancy food joints on this stretch, one being right opposite to this place.


"La Motte" :D


One of the numerous barns I saw on the way.


And one of the many windmills I saw on the way.


Waterbodies were so rare on this belt, that I had to stop and take a picture every time I saw one. Very few I saw en route were closer to Clarens.


Your highness !!! :D


Another pond (I guess) with the cattles grazing nearby.


This route I took was not the same one I came by. It was straight as an arrow for almost 200 KMs or at least it felt like that. lol


Taking a break after a long run and enjoying my last bar of snickers.


Finally! After a long (200 KM) ride, this was the first urban setup (read houses) I came across. I had come via Helbron and now was returning via Frankfort (to the right).


Farmland with bales of hay, which (I guess) are used for feeding the livestock (i.e. cattle)


Very rushed attempt to take a portrait shot of the steed.


It was nice to have a parking spot right outside the restaurant at the fuel station (which is locally called as a 'garage' in SA).

Grilled Chicken with Peri Peri sauce and greek salad as the side :) Healthy and nutritious. I was done eating chips anyway. lol


I had to cross one toll on my way to Clarens. This one was before entering the city.. Toll booths were little ahead, I had to stop here to keep the change handy to avoid making the cars wait too long, as I take off my gloves and take out the cash.

The stock windshield on the NC700X was quite short for highway riding and because of this, the deflected air was hitting my helmet at the chin. And after riding around 200 odd KM an average speed of 125, the helmet liner finally came off. I had to stop and do something about it, before continuing with my journey. Thanks to a special tape that Yesh had given me while leaving, I could fix the helmet liner on the road. However it didn't stop the emergency vehicle from pulling over behind me to investigate. The driver stopped to enquire, why a lone rider has stopped in the middle of nowhere :P He was very impressed with the fix as well. LOL

Jugad rocks!!


Next turn towards the city of Johannesburg, a.k.a. Joburg and also affectionately called Jozi :)

If I remember correctly, this was the Soweto township in the background.

The sight of the city ahead becomes so obvious from the urban structures visible on the horizon. 

Soon after, I was riding alongside the fast cars on the city roads. It took me another half hour to finally reach my hotel. It was a very satisfactory feeling to have completed my solo ride in South Africa in the best way possible. Also, the bit of dirt riding was the icing on the cake. A big thanks to Yesh for lending me his bike lovely Honda NC700x, for this trip and Rupin for the tips and guidance. This trip just made South Africa more familiar for me now. :)

NCX is chilling back at the stable. It deserves the credit for the trouble free run that we had in last 2 days:)

So this short trip was awesome, or as people in Jozi would say:-

 "the ride was lekker, like a cracker.. eh!!".

Until next time...

Ride Safe & Ride Far,
Sid