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DUST

A satellite map of South Africa looks like the surface of a cappuccino: swirls of brown in various shades, with a dollop of white over the mountains in winter. In the west, the reddish brown Kalahari eddies into the dun brown plains of Bushmanland, which fade into the khaki brown Karoo. Look closer at those intersections and you’ll see patches of yellowish brown – a series of salt pans scattered over the landscape. 

The names of the pans are evocative – Swartkolkvloer, Riet se Vloer, Grootvloer – and the biggest of them all, Verneukpan, stretches a good 57km in length.

In Afrikaans, “verneuk” means to deceive or swindle. It’s an apt name because the pan is a place that seems to cheat time, distance and perspective. We arrived in a gale at 35°C, the hot wind galloping across the nothingness and churning up dust devils that spun themselves out like a magic trick. Taking stock after the long journey north from Cape Town, we offloaded the bikes before trying to find a place to hide from the wind and sun until the respite of dusk. Our photographer, Sam Clark, would follow later after experiencing seven punctures on his motorbike and a makeshift camp next to the road.

 

Despite how remote it is, Verneukpan is relatively well-known. Self-sufficient campers come here for the surreal experience of waking up surrounded by baked mud so flat you can sense the curvature of the earth. Motorsport enthusiasts shred their off-road vehicles and kiters harness the hairdryer wind to race their buggies back and forth. The most famous visitor was probably Sir Malcom Campbell, who came to South Africa in 1929 to challenge the land speed record in his Napier-Campbell Bluebird. With the trip beset by problems, he survived his plane crashing into a tree near Calvinia only to discover the pan living up to its deceiving ways: the speed attempts were mired by dust storms, tire-ripping stones and mirages that conjured phantom trees in his path. But then it was summer and the temperature can often climb above 40°C.

“Verneukpan is the most interesting experience experiment I have ever made,” the legendary racer said in an interview. 

An experience experiment – that’s exactly what we were after.


"In Afrikaans, “verneuk” means to deceive or swindle."

"In Afrikaans, “verneuk” means to deceive or swindle."

The experiment’s official name was DUST, conceptualised by Jared Keiser and Carl Jones from Cape Town’s Mother Amateur Bicycling Club. They in turn had been inspired by a trip made by photographer Stan Engelbrecht and artist Nic Grobler in 2016, which led to the brief but glorious Instagram hashtag #trackpan. The idea was simple: to camp out for a weekend and race single speed and fixed-gear bikes in this otherworldly landscape.

The bikes were as unique as their owners: everything from cobbled-together junk bikes to beautifully restored steel creations. Most riders had squeezed the biggest tires possible into their frames, and some had opted for flat bars over drops. In a way, the bikes were the perfect vehicles for Verneukpan—their simplicity echoing the emptiness of the horizon and sky, their unadorned frames like the sun-bleached bones of animals, perished from thirst.


Jared and Carl had decided on four different races: a 1km sprint; the 3km Dustline3000 (an off-road version of their Busline3000 in Cape Town); an elimination crit; and the main race, five laps of a 9km circuit, to be held at dawn on the Sunday morning. The racing was fun but everyone agreed that the best thing about DUST was just being out there, rolling along in wonder, unencumbered by gears and sometimes even brakes, and untethered to landmarks—your speed and distance impossible to guess.

With the wind eventually calming down and the setting sun casting long shadows across the cooling earth, we rode towards that orange orb under a dome of pink and blue. The camp was barely a speck on the other side of the pan as we turned to face a full moon rising huge on the opposite side of the world. With the light soft and silvery, a hush fell over the group as we drifted along, weightless as air, tired, hungry and dirty but utterly mesmerized.


PURCHASE

Volume 10

Badlands
Project type
Coming Out Stronger
Project type
The Modern House on wheels
Project type

Far Ride Magazine is an independent publication documenting the people, journeys and stories related to cycling around the world.

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