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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.