A sense of adventure is a must on the seven-day Bushman’s Cycling Tour through uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park
Words Fiona McIntosh Pictures Shaen Adey/Avril Harvey
We arrived at the gates to Vergelegen just as the heavens opened. Avril, our ever-cheerful guide, grinned as water poured off her helmet. “Do you want to ride the last 10km to camp or hop in the vehicle?” she asked. Half the party gratefully accepted the offer, while the stubborn remainder bit the bullet.
It was a hard slog in the rain and we felt the winter chill. The rain came down in force, muddying the track and ominously swelling the river that ran alongside, but still we struggled on. Then, as we arrived at the base of the final 100m climb on concrete strips to the Vergelegen camp, the rain stopped and the sun popped out, casting a rainbow that had one foot in the campsite. We were tired, mud-splattered and cold, but the sight of the rain-washed mountains, the sound of the birds, and the feeling of satisfaction from battling on despite the elements, made it all worthwhile.
Not that we were under any pressure to ride hard. This was supposed to be a holiday not a race. By the time we arrived in camp, the fire was burning fiercely and our more sensible companions were already hitting the sherry bottle. The smell of a pork potjie drifted over, and Avril’s reminder that we had to clean the bikes before we showered and ate went down like a ton of bricks. But within an hour we were seated around the fire, sipping sherry as we waited for our potjiekos. The rain had started again, a steady drizzle, but we were warm and dry under our tarpaulin.
The day had started with a transfer to the top of Sani Pass, from where it was an exhilarating and icy eight-kilometre downhill to Underberg, where we had a cheese tasting. Now we had the lovely nature reserve of Vergelegen all to ourselves. Around us were some of the highest peaks in Southern Africa – not a bad way to end the first full day on our bikes.
The seven-day Bushman’s Cycling Tour is certainly not for sissies. Although it’s a non-technical ride, a week in the saddle is challenging even if you’re a seasoned rider. Although the ride is guided and catered, you camp or stay in rustic accommodation so it’s certainly not a luxury tour. But if you’ve a sense of adventure it’s a wonderful way to combine a cycling holiday with some walking in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.
As you ride, you’re treated to spectacular mountain views, while afternoon walks allow you to appreciate the flora, fauna and rock art galleries of this incredible mountain range. The route largely follows the tar and dirt roads that wind their way around the Little Berg, and the constant presence of a support vehicle means you can hitch a lift up any steep climbs and choose the distance you want to cycle each day.
The tour started on a farm near Underberg, with the first afternoon spent acclimatising on the farm’s weaving single-track, and enjoying a bit of game viewing on two wheels. After sundowners and a braai it was time for a briefing before we loaded the bikes for the transfer up Sani Pass, and then turned in.
The rain had cleared by the time we left Vergelegen on day three so we hung the soggy clothing from the previous evening around the van before speeding back down the concrete strips, and veering towards the village of Loteni and its dramatic mountain backdrop. Up and down we went over spectacular mountain passes and across a number of small rivers before meandering through Loteni and on to the beautifully situated campsite overlooking Loteni River.
In the afternoon, the majority of the group went for a hike while the dirt hounds hopped back on their bikes for another ride – and came back elated at having seen eland as well as magnificent Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) catching the thermals. That evening we relaxed around a crackling fire, the only sound in this unpopulated wilderness.
Avril was in her element the next morning. “The good news is that we start the day with a fantastic downhill.” She paused and let the inevitable truth dawn on us. “Yes, the bad news is the steep 20km climb that follows. But you can jump in the back-up vehicle and hop out at the top.” This time there were no takers; we took the gradual climbs slowly before ending the morning with another wonderful section of downhill on the windy, dirt road that leads to the Kamberg Nature Reserve. Discarding our bikes, we joined the tour to Game Pass Shelter, then it was on to Glengarry campsite where the tough enjoyed a swim in the icy river.
Next morning the sun was just peeping over the horizon when we left Glengarry, initially following farm and forest tracks in the shadow of the mighty Giant’s Castle. After some fun single-track, there was a long and steep downhill on tar to the village of Loskop, from where we were transferred to Cathedral Peak. After setting up camp in the shade of the oak trees we decided to spoil ourselves and headed up to Cathedral Peak Hotel to enjoy the incredible views of the Peak and the Bell over a beer.
After breakfast, we rode out on the rough seven-kilometre dirt road up Mike’s Pass. The gradient was steep but the views were sufficiently inspiring to keep our legs spinning. Once at the top, it was a challenging 16km loop back to the campsite so the majority of the group were quite content to spend the afternoon hiking and visiting the Didima San Art Centre rather than tackle the more challenging single-track on offer around the hotel. The Cathedral Peak area has some of my favourite Drakensberg trails including that to the fabulous Rainbow Gorge.
The final day was a long (80km) but gentle meander through the Northern Berg, from Cathedral Peak to – from where we were transferred back to our vehicles. With the sun shining we were able to soak up the views of the Amphitheatre and the Tugela Falls as we cruised the good gravel and tar roads.
I felt happy, fit and refreshed, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous quote sprang to mind. ‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.’
This little spin had been the perfect tonic.