South Africa: Just Go!

Words by Kath Bicknell | Images by Kath Bicknell

From high up in the Drakensberg mountains, to Cape Town, to Franschhoek: We explore three visually stunning South African riding destinations.

 

There are a lot of ways in which mountain biking in South Africa isn’t that different to mountain biking in Australia. Sharing latitude lines in the Southern Hemisphere means the seasons are similar for starters – and so is the terrain.

But one thing that makes the riding in South Africa quite different is the number of well-signed trails that travel through wide open spaces. It’s more like Europe or New Zealand in this way.

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The other thing that is very different from Australia is the amazing wildlife. It’s only when you see these animals in their natural habitat do I feel you can truly appreciated them.

This is in part due to South Africa’s reputation for hosting enormous, well-run events that give back in big ways to local communities. Some excellent relationships between trail builders and landowners have put mountain biking on the map in a very positive way.

We cherry-picked some great riding locations that fit within the popular tourist circuit as well.

Montusi Mountain Air

The Montusi Mountain Lodge is located in the Mont-Aux-Sources area of the Drakensberg Mountains. Water from the high point of these mountains runs in two directions: to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Here as part of a tour group of 14, we all went in one direction: Following the signs of well-marked, purposed built trails.

Our ride guide for the day was Anthony Carte, 65, who grew up 10km away at Montusi’s sister resort, The Cavern. His mobile phone was jammed into the elastic at the waist of his knicks, and a plastic bag of cookies hung from the handlebars of his Trek Superfly 100.

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Anthony Carte, our guide,  explains what he calls the two Drakensbergs: ‘The Little Drakensberg is a sandstone based mountain range which is about 2000m above sea level. It goes for hundreds of kilometres but it is probably more dramatic in this area than further north. Then you’ve got the igneous basalt rocks of the higher mountains they go to 3200 and something metres at the high points – those are the snow capped mountains now.’

Anthony looked comfortably at home having spent countless hours in these mountains running, hiking and horse riding before picking up the bike. We, on the other hand, looked like a pack of excited school children. We met up with Anthony’s older brother, Peter, further along the trail.

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Anthony Carte: ‘We’ve got the most incredible hiking. We have got unlimited space. We do hiking in the Little Berg, which has got lots of features like caves, forests, little waterfalls and little peaks that are manageable.’

There are up to 85km of trails in this area. They are predominantly long, flowing straights that cut through the grassy, golden mountain landscape. The Carte brothers alongside Anthony’s son-in-law Chris Mecklenborg, who runs the All Out Adventure Centre down the road, are the people to thank for putting it all in place.

We pass over bridges, river crossings, challenging climbs and laugh into the breeze on quick, fast descents. The varied terrain keeps you on your A-Game, but it’s the scenery that makes this ride one I’ll always reflect back on.

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To have the trails all to yourself does come at a small price.

‘I’m riding through Africa,’ I keep thinking, pretending that I’m on a journey that will take me several months rather than a couple of short hours. ‘What an incredible place.’

Talking with Anthony in the evening I learned that our trip is not dissimilar to the typical tourist route, it just includes more bikes. Start in Jo’burg, rent a vehicle and head up to Kwa-Zulu Natal to see the big animals in game reserves. Then head down to Durban for the ocean.

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The natural beauty of South Africa never seems to end.

Next, people usually fly to Port Elizabeth and drive to Cape Town via the Garden Route.  We skipped the Garden Route and went straight to the shining lights of Cape Town.

Cape Town Capers

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Cape Town is one of me most beautiful cities in the world.

‘Sleep with the curtains open,’ I was told, after arriving at Cape Town’s palatial Table Bay Hotel late at night. The next morning I saw why – the harbour which glittering with lights at night, sat directly in front of the magnificent Table Mountain. Seals swam in the water as we built bikes on the balcony above.

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Our stay in Cape Town was very much about sampling as many experiences as possible rather than going hard on one flavour alone: A cable car ride to the top of Table Mountain on a crystal clear day. Helicopter rides along the coastline. Cocktails overlooking the water…

Enthusiastic Tweeting from some of the riders in our tour group put us in touch with local rider, Nico Boshoff, who we met up with at a carpark half way up Table Mountain.  Having seen the vast fire road network from the top earlier in the morning, it was exciting to the point of small chills to find ourselves smashing along these popular fitness trails later in the day.

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We actually rode trials just below this amazing view.

The gravelly surface was loose enough to challenge your control at speed, but the width of the roads offered enough space to drift wide around corners and keep your eyes more on the views than the trails.

The green and orange of the mountain, met by the built environment of the city, surrounded by the shine ocean, meant this was a ride that was very much about the views – and the altitude that allowed us to experience them.

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The proximity to the city makes for a unique backdrop. Day or night the views are amazing.

With trail networks including the Tokai Forest, Jonkershoek, Wellington, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch all within an hour’s drive of Cape Town, we could quite happily lose two weeks in this region.

Before we left, we hit up the multi-story African Trading Post for souvenirs. It was here that I met a man from Rwanda who told me about things he’s seen that no one should see. ‘You’re Australian,’ he said quietly. ‘Don’t waste it.’ It brought me to the ground faster than any bike crash.

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We definitely didn’t have enough time on the trails in Cape Town. So many options and so much fun.

So Frenchy So Franschhoek

With two days left before flashing our passports and boarding the plane back home, we met up with Franschhoek Cycles’ owner, Geddan Ruddock, for our final excursion.

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Geddan Ruddock, owner of Franschhoek Cycles:’I think we’ve got obviously very similar weather to Australia and we’re both in the Southern Hemisphere so riding conditions are similar too. And people are friendly here. And we just love our outdoors, which is another common denominator. When we started the Franschhoek Cycling Club, one of our main focuses was also to get a development team going. We’ve had that since the outset of the club, which is about six years ago now. It’s important just to put something back into the community.’

Geddan rode for South Africa in ‘about five’ Cross-Country World Championships, starting with the infamous 1996 edition in Cairns. He’s watched mountain biking come of age in South Africa and is passionate about trail access and finding funding to make the sport more accessible for all.

We set out on the Matoppie Route, a local favourite. ‘What’s nice is you climb to a point,’ says Geddan, ‘Then you contour all the way around. And you have a number of challenges – it’s sandy, rocky, there’s the climbing.’

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Geddan Ruddock: ‘We do have plans to build some singletrack. There’s a local organisation called AMA Rider [the African Mountain Bike Association] that are campaigning for trail access in Africa. It was started by a guy called Meurant Botha who is based in Stellenbosch. In South Africa he is THE trail guy. He’s actually already done a trail proposal for Franschhoek about 5 or 6 years ago, which includes a trail that would go around the dam. It’s just a matter of getting the funding and then he will do it.’

Riding the raw feeling trails without anyone else in sight instantly showed us why this French influenced, wine-growing region is another piece of South African bike riding paradise. The dry, rocky surface reminded me a lot of Alice Springs. Or at least, what riding in Alice would be like if the trails were steeper and skirted around an almighty, glistening dam. In the winter the sand compacts and streams run across the route as well.

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If you come out to Franschhoek you pretty much guarantee that you’ve got space and it’s not going to be too many people out.

Our ride finished early, as we had a booking for a three course meal at the nearby Rickety Bridge Winery to uphold – a strange sentence to write, but one that points toward how much each region offers travellers to pack in. And how much I was itching to see the other 60 or so kilometres of trails on offer here as well.

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After working up a healthy appetite on the trails, we headed straight for Rickety Bridge winery. A three course lunch, where each dish makes you groan in amazement before you’ve even tasted it, cost about $AU 30 per person.

Wine tasting followed our long lunch, before the group split to take in the Franschhoek Motor Museum, or spend time shopping for things like art, leather goods and chocolate in the boutiquey looking stores in town.

Luxurious living is unsettlingly cheap for Australians travelling through South Africa. At the same time, just experiencing it made me savour every sight, flavour, pedal and smell.

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When returning from a holiday, people inevitably ask you, ‘How was it?’ If you’ve gone to Asia or Europe, the two continents where Australians are most likely to travel, the answer usually involves a series of ‘must dos’ – places you have to see, foods you need to try, activities not to be missed. These conversations often work on the assumption that the person you’re talking to will most likely visit this place one day too. Or maybe they already have.

Upon returning from South Africa, I found my answer to the ‘How was it’ question was ‘Just go.’ Just go, because I fear you might not. Just go for the bright colours, the people, the landscapes, the wildlife, the tastes, things that are familiar, things that are strange.

And go for the riding. Mountain biking in this country of contrasts is a lot more accessible than most people think.


South Africa Tourism:

The Australian branch of South Africa Tourism ran a Bucket List Campaign from November 2012 to March 2013. This campaign tapped into the idea you could tick off most of your own Bucket List in South Africa. With help from Time Out magazine and the Australian public a list was created of 25 more specific activities to try after arriving in this colourful country. The completed, visually stunning ‘Time Out Insider’s Guide to South Africa’ includes a lot of helpful travel information as well. Head to www.southafrica.net to find out more.

 

Safety:

One of the questions we’ve been asked most often since returning is, ‘Did you feel safe?’ The answer is yes, very, but picking where you go is important in this regard. Travelling as part of a large group meant we had our destinations and accommodation picked for us and we travelled between them, or to airports, on a bus with a local driver. South Africa is very easy to travel around with a hire car as well.

To paraphrase a friend from Cape Town, just be a bit smart about how you act and what you flash around. Don’t take your camera out and leave your bag wide open with your wallet hanging there for all to see. And once you take a photo, put your camera away again.  We’d suggest similar for any tourist destination.

 

 

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