TO HELL AND BACK: The Race in the Swartberg Mountains

To Hell and Back must be one of the most grueling cycle tours in Africa. In November, this epic takes riders all the way to hell and the next day back. Once a year, mountain bikers clash on the uphill hairpins of the Swartberg Pass and the hairy descent to Gamkaskloof in the Klein Karoo. Only the very brave and venturesome can claim the unique distinction of having been to hell and back.

Rather than the distance, it’s the destination that makes this event such torture. The summit of the infamous Swartberg Pass registers 1560 meters above sea level. At this point, you are at an altitude higher than Johannesburg. And then approximately 40 kilometres of seriously undulating mountain roads await…

At 50 kilometres I ask somebody… “Hi… Is Hell before or after that hill…?”

“After…” came the answer, “that is Heartbreak Hill…”

We plunged into the most spectacular hangs and valleys, smashed through streams and a signboard, crudely strapped to a ‘dehydrated’ bush, popped up. It read ‘Heartbreak Hill’. A four kilometre climb awaits, legs aching with the pain of lactic acid. A glance down at the bike computer with only 8 kilometres left… One last effort, every muscle fibre in your body is stretched to the limit. Please God, enough now, I want to go to hell where I can rest… And then all my prayers are answered. Level ground and the summit. The beginning of a road called Elandspad. The only way in to the HELL.

The drop down is severe, very severe… 470m in 4 kilometres. Switchbacks snaking back on themselves like impossible hairpins. I could not help thinking of the Black ski runs of Austria. Elandspad would be off the grading scale for snow skis. The surface is loose gravel. There are no barriers and a long fall if you get it wrong.

The start of the second stage was very different from that of the previous day. It was altogether more serious… People were altogether more tired and oh goodness it was steep.. The start was straight into granny gear… Eventually we reached the top. What had taken an hour up Heartbreak Hill the day before whizzed by in 5 minutes.

My good sense of humor was short lived. Thirty kilometres of grinding started and it went on and on and on… The Top of Swartberg Pass beckoned. For the NOVICE, DIE HELLER I could not stop babbling out my war stories of experience down Swartberg pass. I was HOME and time to rest. Wash the Karoo off our bikes and start preparing mentally for next year.

For more info on this race visit or Leigh and Susan at Leigh’s Cycle Centre in the Pavillion, Durban.

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