Hitting the freedom trail

2008-07-24 00:00

There is a mountain bike trail called Freedom. It is 2 300 kilometres long and runs from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl, but not in a straight line. Instead, it penetrates the heart of rural South Africa, off the beaten track, and leaves riders marvelling at the beauty of our land and the warmth of our people.

The trail connects one conservation area with another and stays far away from busy roads, traversing breathtakingly picturesque parts of our country. There are almost no markings along the way — only maps and directions as a guide from one spectacular track to the next.

The trail meanders through plantations, nature reserves and river valleys; past villages, rural schools and mission stations; across flood plains and wetlands; along ridges with 180- degree views of mountains. It follows district or forestry roads, cattle tracks or footpaths. And when the day’s ride is over, riders are further enriched by staying in traditional guest houses, lodges, farmhouses, or even in a Maluti family’s hut — and encountering an entirely different way of life.

Every winter since 2004 a few “hardcores” have braved the entire route. Carrying essentials, they spend 14 to 26 days doing the “Race Across South Africa”. Then there are the ultra-hardcores who do the Extreme Triathlon — Comrades, the Race Across South Africa and the four-day Berg River Canoe Marathon.

For those who want the experience but don’t have the vacation leave or the stamina, the organisers offer a Ride to Rhodes consisting of the first six days and 550 kilometres of the trail. It’s a ride, not a race, with the bonus of a support vehicle carrying belongings — and a support driver offering endless advice and directions, food and encouragement along the way .

So, having persuaded both my boss and my husband to give me a week’s sports leave, I was one of 24 who set off at 6 am on a cold and dark mid-June morning from the city hall in Pietermaritzburg. Riding out of town, through Bisley Nature Reserve, past Baynesfield Estate, we left behind tarred roads, traffic, crowds and chaos. For the next six days we relished the taste of freedom on the trail.

The first day’s 105-kilometre ride, mostly on forestry roads to Allendale, was punctuated by three big climbs — into the Byrne Valley where we warmed up with soup; through plantations on the way to the mighty Umkomaas River; and, lastly, up from the Hella Hella bridge, so named, I suspect, after the hellish 11-kilometre climb that follows, but at least the spectacular views over the Umko Valley rewarded us. That night we were spoilt with delicious home-cooked meals at Allendale farm and some of us stayed in luxury … although the men weren’t too impressed with their converted chicken shed lodgings.

The next morning we set off in the dark along a farm track. After a beautiful sunrise, we navigated our way across the plantations around Donnybrook with the help of directions and the tyre tracks of the riders in front of us. Through the lush Nxumeni forest, on to Centocow mission station where a magnificent redbrick cathedral was the setting for lunch. We entertained the local community by riding past on our fancy bikes and wading through icy rivers, then climbed the steep road to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. As the rocky outcrop of Ntsikeni turned pink with the setting sun, we crossed a remote landscape, desperate to reach the lodge before dark. After 102 kilometres we were very appreciative of the warmth of the fire, people and food, and welcomed the rest as they finished in the light of the full moon.

At the crack of dawn we headed off, crossing icy, boggy wetlands and soon had cold feet and muddy bikes. We warmed up along the fast farm roads with beautiful views of the distant southern Drakensberg. We were treated to some fun single-track riding and interesting pathfinding in the afternoon. At one point we asked the local horsemen to show us the best way out of the valley. We finished the 97-kilometre day in an afternoon downpour so welcomed the sight of Masakala traditional guest house and tasty local food.

Clear skies greeted the morning of our only easy day — 57 kilometres, flattish and lots of local footpaths. The Knira River floodplain is inhabited by friendly people in small villages and bordered by the Maluti Mountains. A corrugated dirt road led to the picturesque Malekhalonyane Lodge. Set high up and surrounded by mountains, the traditional huts of the lodge look idyllic. Arriving at 1 pm, we spent the afternoon soaking up the sun, cleaning and fixing our bikes and eating vetkoek prepared by our excellent hosts.

The fifth day was my favourite: for 30 kilometres along the Black Fountain ridge we were all smiles and laughter. There we were, riding on a plateau with the snow-capped Malutis next to us, beautiful valleys below us and a swooping single-track to follow — a mountain biker’s paradise.

The last 27 kilometres of the 90-kilometre day was a fairly steep winding road next to the Tina River up to Vuvu where the villagers excitedly welcomed us with much ululating and cheering. After a hot camp shower and a meal at the local school, we were taken into the village to sleep in our various hosts’ homes.

Day six dawned with the challenge of conquering Lehana’s Pass. The fastest way from Vuvu to Rhodes is straight over the Malutis, up a mostly unrideable footpath. The three to four hours of carrying and pushing our bikes up to 2 600 metres provided time to enjoy breathtaking views and reflect on the experiences of the last six days.

We stopped at the wonderful sundeck at Tenahead Lodge to dry out, drink coffee and wait for our friends. The climbing wasn’t over as we still had to ride over the twisty Naude’s Neck Pass then along a peaceful undulating road into the finish at Rhodes. As we sat at the Rhodes Hotel quietly celebrating with a beer we reminisced about our epic week of riding and toasted those who were bravely continuing to Paarl.

David Waddilove, a Cape Town conservation lawyer, created the route and with European Union funding is developing it to be a fully serviced trail with mountain-biking centres along the way. His desire is simple: to have people out riding the trail or sections of it, whether touring or racing, but experiencing all the wonders the trail has to offer.

• Inquiries: www.freedomchallenge.org.za

DAILY STAGES

Overnight accommodation is provided at six fully serviced stops and a support vehicle will move your equipment and personal belongings.

Day 1: Pietermaritzburg to Allendale (105 km)

Day 2: Allendale to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve (102 km)

Day 3: Ntsikeni Nature Reserve to Matatiele (97 km)

Day 4: Masakala Village to Mariazell Mission (57 km).

Day 5: Maria Zell Mission to Vuvu village (90 km).

Day 6: Vuvu Village to Rhodes (99 km).

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