Here are ten of Jacques Marais’s favourite riding regions and dorps in South Africa . . .
Prince Albert, Central Karoo
Country hospitality is big on the cultural menu in this delightful dorp. The Swartberg region around Prince Albert delivers a selection of awesome gravel passes, winding country roads and deserted tarmac strips trailing towards the horizon.
For a country crank full of family joie de vivre, head west out of town on a curvaceous cruise across wide-sky plains towards Gamkaberg Dam. It’s all about less pain and more gain along an up-and-down ride traversing the foot of Aasvoëlberg towards the dam, a moderate return jaunt in the region of 40km.
However, if you’re here to put the mountain back into mountain biking, get started up the Swartberg Pass, a guts-and-glory crank that never lets up along nearly 16km of in-your-face climbing. If you’re brave, turn right into Gamkaskloof and grind another 40km into Die Hel, a remote valley basking amid contorted peaks.
Swellendam is bordered by a national park and a nature reserve, both rated as exceptional MTB exploration options. The Bontebok National Park is a place of serene beauty, with the Langeberg mountains providing a majestic backdrop. A network of circular and return route options beckons in the reserve, ranging from 5km to more than 40km. Although the surface quality is rough in places – with stretches of loose gravel, and of loose rocks – it still makes for a great rookie ride.
The Marloth Nature Reserve, 14 000ha of plantations, forest and mountain fynbos at the foot of the Langeberg, will have you cranking on steeper and more technical tracks. A range of routes heads into The Hermitage Valley, up to Die Plaat or along the Two Feathers Horse Trails. The surface varies from eroded rock and sand to muddy sections after heavy rains, but the views are gorgeous, and the dense canopy overhead makes for cool riding, even on hot summer days. www.capenature.co.za
Clarens, Thabo Mofutsanyana
(Eastern Free State)
This pretty little town abuts the foothills of the towering Maloti range, so expect the riding to be steep and technical as soon as you leave the valley. There is a fun 10km crank around the town suited to the family, and bike hire, maps or a guide can be arranged through one of the local adventure operators. And if the MTB trail terrifies you, stick to the tarmac for a stunning 68km crank from Clarens to the Golden Gate National Park along smooth roads, with generous road shoulders and minimal traffic.
If you’re a more serious rider, the Bokpoort MTB Trail 8km from Clarens is sure to test you to your absolute limit. Mountain biking is along a technical (and extremely steep) trail; ascend nearly 700m via an 8km vehicle track to the Bush Camp at 1 980m. Various return options along single-track horse trails can be combined to make this a hard core 34km-plus ride. Note this is an extreme circuit, but with fantastic views that make up for the effort.
Storms River Village, Tsitsikamma
Tsitsikamma is the ‘place of abundant or sparkling water’, and this ancient Khoi word perfectly describes the lush and lovely region. Craggy peaks, secret beaches and temperate rainforest – where giant yellowwoods tower above gorges and black-water pools – make the perfect setting for mind-blowing mountain biking. Easy-over rides along the quiet village streets and outlying forest roads are a pleasure.
The Storms River MTB route will take you through part of the Garden Route National Park along the Storms River Pass, a quality gravel road. Wind through spectacular indigenous forest before banging down the steep 5km descent to Storms River. A hard climb takes you onto the coastal bluff and into the Safcol pine plantations for a few kilometres of flat riding. Enjoy the view over Storms River Mouth and Tsitsikamma National Park before heading back on the return trail by cutting through a mature plantation. Although steep, this is a moderate ride suitable for all levels of riders.
Hogsback … the mere mention of the name conjures up images of fairies, magical forests and a snowy winter wonderland where Christmas is celebrated in July. And if this is not enough to lure you into the Amatole mountains, the legendary bike trails will. If you’re not yet ready for single-track, opt for the Happy Valley route. Head towards Cathcart till you see the Happy Valley road to the right and follow it through poplar groves and over sparkling streams.
If you’re in Hogsback for a more technical challenge, however, rather do the Away with the Fairies route. Meet at the eponymous backpacker’s hostel and explore the sweet single-track above Tyume Valley. Duck and dive through stands of wattle on your way to Robinson Dam, then ascend to The Hog’s ridges to bomb onto Hogsback’s superb single-track network. Once in this emerald paradise, you’ll most certainly be ‘away with the fairies’ on a magical ride.
Nieuwoudtville is one of those hidden treasures you discover once you’ve explored beyond the uppermost reaches of the Cederberg. It is here on the Bokkeveld Plateau that the Cape fynbos meets the Hantam Karoo, Bushmanland and the Knersvlakte. An extensive network of gravel roads traverses the rugged terrain, making it a great place for easy riding, especially along the flatter stretches towards Calvinia and Botterkloof Pass.
Adjacent to the town, the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve stretches in all its dramatic splendour onto the rugged escarpment overlooking the Knersvlakte. Some of the roads leading to the reserve are semi-private and may have locked gates, so make sure you check access before setting off. More challenging riding awaits at the impressive Papkuilsfontein, south of town. Here, rocky jeep tracks lead to the highest point of the kloof for breathtaking views of the Papkuilsfontein waterfall that plunges 180m into the Oorlogskloof gorge. The 50km route to Rondekop is a must in spring when you will be cranking through a floral wonderland.
Gariep Dam, Xhariep
The little town of Gariep lies against a hill at the western end of the magnificent Gariep, a man-made lake more than a 100km long and 24km wide. The tranquil setting and crisp environment are perfect for experiencing the endless vistas of the southern Free State, as you venture onto gravel roads winding through the Gariep Dam Nature Reserve. This is 100% pedalling paradise for the fat tyre aficionado or steadfast roadie. Nearly 100km of gravel roads as well as endless kilometres of undulating tar surround Gariep.
Exploring the gorgeous Gariep Dam Reserve is a must. The reserve gate is a mere 4.5km from the Forever Resort and then you’re in MTB heaven.
A good quality gravel road leads to a fair bit of up and down through koppies along the game drive loop and up to the scenic viewpoint. From here, you can bang down to the Serengeti-like plains where herds of zebra, eland, wildebeest and springbuck will race you at break-neck speed along the dual track. Options to vary your crank are numerous, with easy-to-follow routes along the lake shoreline.
Emgwenya, Heartland and Highlands Region
Waterval Boven is better known for its rock-climbing and flyfishing, but mountain biking rates high on its activity list. An incredible trail network offers mind-blowing vistas on the Rim Trail, swooping s-bends through shady forests and past historical sites, or big climbs to Imemeza’s summit (the so-called Place of Shouting). The 11km circular Mountain Trail from the centre of town climbs steeply along zigzags after a short section of dirt road, while the Forest Loop constitutes 5km of sublime switchback single-track and starts along a section of jeep track across the way from Tranquilitas Adventure Farm.
Need more saddle time? Misty Valley MTB & Trail Centre, only a few kilometres out of town, offers a vast range of trails over forested mountains and through remote valleys. Easy trails like Stonehenge include farm road, jeep track, single-track and seven bridge crossings while the expert gorge trail will have you negotiating drop-offs, steep climbs and technical descents on narrow paths.
Kamberg, uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
Kamberg Nature Reserve lies in a remote valley between Giant’s Castle and the Midlands Meander, and rates as a top fly-fishing, hiking, trail running and biking venue. A straightforward MTB ride starts at Kamberg Camp down a cement dual track towards the trout dams. The jeep track starts 300m to the right (ignore the No Entry sign for vehicles) and leads to the grassy foothills of the Kamberg. The track later winds down towards the Mooi River (6.6km) where you have to turn and hit the track back to camp.
Another option is Glengarry Park, a nature lover’s paradise overlooking the Little Mooi River. Here you will find a choice of anything from a moderate 17km MTB route suitable for the family to a respectable 55km off-road ride through the heart of the Kamberg Valley. Finally, for the road cyclists, cruising the Kamberg and Giant’s Castle roads at more than 2 000m is ideal training.
Skeerpoort, Bojanala Region
The little hamlet of Skeerpoort is set slap bang in the middle of the Magaliesberg mountains and offers easy access to the Cradle of Humankind. It would be impossible to list all the MTB options in the area, but here are some of the best: the Van Gaalen Cheese Farm trails need no introduction, as the farm is rated one of the top trail destinations close to Jozi. Purpose-built single-track does not get much better than this, so revel in your ride as you bomb through reeds, bush, open veld and across rivers. Crank options abound over 150km of trails.
Just 8km south of Skeerpoort, Segwati Ranch offers cyclists the refreshing opportunity to ramble on a beautiful 650ha game farm. The extensive dirt road network is flat and ideal for beginners, while the more adventurous cyclist can attempt mountain trails rising to 1 544m above sea level, or 4×4 tracks up and down the Witwatersrand range. Several beautiful public roads criss-cross the region offering breathtaking views, like Breedtsnek, a dirt road pass straddling the Magaliesberg, or head south to the Cradle of Humankind and explore the rolling Highveld grassland dotted with islands of sinkhole forest.
For more information, visit Jacques Marais’s website: www.mtbroutes.co.za.