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Winter Wonderland - Swartberg Pass

By the time you reach Prince Albert on the Freedom Challenge RASA pilgrimage, the routine of waking up long before it gets light, scoffing down as much food as you can stomach, engineering a final toilet break, frantically packing your bags, and mounting your bike to ride out into the pitch darkness, is all too familiar. It feels normal. However, when our small group of three – Merak and Ollie Greaves plus myself – rolled out of Prince Albert on our 16th day on the trail, a few things felt a little off. First, we had been riding in a sizable group most of the way, but our group had been whittled down to just the three of us due to sickness and mechanical issues. So, it was a little quiet and subdued as we set off. Second, the early morning air was biting cold. We had been warned by the support station host that the temperature would drop overnight, and it had dropped. Third, for some reason, the morning felt very dark. Maybe there was no moon, or maybe the moon was hidden behind the trees as we rolled out of town. The small group, cold air, and darkness made me feel vulnerable. But I pushed on. 


My sense of vulnerability was further exacerbated soon after leaving Prince Albert as the road changed from tar to dirt and started to ascend sharply, with the climbing to the Swartberg Pass. The statistics of the Swartberg Pass are that it climbs a whopping 1000m over a distance of 12km, with a max gradient of 1:8. The pictures of the pass taken in the light are spectacular; it's a winding dirt road that zigzags through the high mountains and passing through incredible geological formations. Only we could see none of that. We just had to climb the hill.  


Ollie, who had been getting stronger and stronger as the ride progressed, did not seem to notice the incline. He sped off the front. Merak was a little more cautious, but he also seemed strong and not too fussed by the winding uphill. I, however, was suffering. The combination of the cold, the dark, the 15 days of nonstop riding and hiking already in my legs, and the formidable day ahead meant that my mind and body started to work against me. All I could see was the beam of my bike light shining ahead up a very steep road, and once in a while, I would notice a red rear light of Ollie and Merak way above me. It was too steep to ride in many places, and as I pushed my bike up the road in the cold, I started spiraling out of control. “What the hell was I doing here?” I wondered. I questioned the purpose of this whole endeavor. However, the only way out was up, so I forged ahead, mostly with my head down, trying to talk myself out of my negative headspace as I plodded forward.  


About three-quarters of the way up, it started to get light. Slowly, the steep, alluring, breathtaking mountains around me began revealing themselves. As the sun peered above the horizon, I turned a sharp corner in the road to make the final push to the top of the pass and before me was a white winter wonderland illuminated by fresh, vivid rays of sunshine. It had snowed overnight on the higher elevations, and as far as we could see, the ground was covered in fresh, white powder. We happened to be in the ideal spot to see this fresh winter wonderland at the optimal time of the day, in the perfect light.  


I looked up the road to the lookout point at the top of the pass and saw Ollie smiling from ear to ear. He was trying to take it all in, but it was too much, too expansive, too beautiful, too out of the ordinary. We looked east towards the sunrise and saw mountain peak after mountain peak covered in what looked like icing sugar. Then we rode on a little more and looked west down the Gamkaskloof Valley, which was white and glistening as the sun rays caught the bushes, trees, and slopes covered in snow. I have lived in parts of the world that get snow frequently, so the snow itself was not such a novelty, but seeing it this fresh in such a foreign environment, illuminated by the first rays of sunshine, and with not another soul in sight to disrupt the moment was something I would never forget.


We took some pictures, but none did justice to the scene. It was impossible to capture it adequately. We had a quick bite to eat, an energy bar, and a few wine gums, and then turned right onto the Gamkaskloof road. We had to ride cautiously as we cut a path through the fresh snow. I rode along, trying to take it all in and appreciating that I was well and truly out of my negative funk. Nature has a way of doing that to us. 


By 11 am that morning, the snow had disappeared, and all we had to remember our winter wonderland at the top of the Swarberg Pass were a few photographs and some incredible memories. 




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I assume this isn't "30 June 2024" we have no reports of snow on the Swartberg Pass 🤔

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Article was published on June 30 2024 but it is looking back on the 2021 RASA when there was plenty of snow on Swartberg Pass. Sorry if that was not clear.

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