I arrived just ahead of the storm at the Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve on the evening of Tuesday the 6th of May and spent a comfortable night in a cabin, while the storm blew in. With every gale force gust, I was more pleased with my decision not to camp.
When I woke on Wednesday morning the power was off on the farm, a blue gum tree had toppled in the night and pulled the power lines down I was later to discover. With squalls blowing through intermittently there was no need to rush so I waited for mid-day before setting off up the mountain. I was initially joined by one of the farm dogs, a super fit golden retriever but after a little, eight kilometre, exploration lap of the quad bike trails I decided to rather take her home than risk having someone else’s dog follow me into a snow storm.
The Matroosberg peak was reaching up into dense cloud cover, its summit at two thousand two hundred and forty-nine meters above sea level was entirely obscured. The climb is roughly eleven kilometres long, from the reserve’s main office, and it is brutally steep. It is definitely a tougher climb than the Merino Monster, which lies across the Ceres basin towards the North West. Within a kilometre, I was hike-a-biking the steepest sections and riding the more gentle gradients – grateful for the wind at my back.
All told I made it about nine kilometres into the climb before the elements got the better of me. Initially, on the lower slopes the wind drove a steady rain into my back, but as I gained altitude the rain turned to hail and eventually that strange icy snow we get on the mountains of the Western Cape. It certainly wasn’t the type to drift lazily to earth; no, this snow was only discernable from the hail which preceded it by the fact that it was as likely to be gusted upwards by the wind as it was to fall to earth. Whereas the hail fell mercilessly, inexorably, to earth.
Having bundled myself up in an assortment of cycling and trail running wet weather gear my core and legs were relatively warm, all things considered, but my hands were freezing. My fingers screamed every time I touched a metal part of my bike, which considering I was pushing it a fair amount was too often. Then the nozzle on my bottle began to freeze between sips and the cold even affected my phone every time I took it out to take a photo. Eventually, a small snow drift caught me off guards, while taking photos, and forced me off my bike at one thousand eight hundred and sixty metres above sea level. That’s higher than the summit of the Merino Monster, higher than I’d ever climbed on a bike in the Western Cape.
At that point, I decided it was probably wise to put on my extra waterproof jacket before continuing up the mountain. But when I tried to work the zips I realised my fingers weren’t cooperating, and there was still a white knuckle descent into the teeth of the wind… So I turned for home.
The descent was surprisingly without incident, given the snow, hail and rain being whipped into my eyes. Apart from a puddle which had swelled since I crossed it going up, which left me with sopping wet and soon to be freezing feet and served to encourage me to give my frozen fingers a rest from hanging on the brakes – rather racing downhill to the warmth of the Matroosberg cottages.
Tomorrow it’s back to Stellenbosch and deadlines, but maybe there’ll be snow on the Jonkershoek Mountains too and I can put work off for another day…
Update 8 June 2017: There is lots of snow on the Matroosberg mountain and lower in the valley. The electricity, phones lines, and cell phone towers are currently down. But there is plenty of accommodation (with gas geysers and indoor fireplaces) available for those looking to get in on the action.