What do you do when you’ve done the Freedom Challenge? If you have more racing in you and perhaps want to do a faster time, you go back and do it again. You may opt to ride as Mike and Glenn did, on a tandem, or if you are of purist bent, on a single-speed. You can opt, of course, to ride shorter sections on a social basis.
Steve Thomas, my riding partner in ‘07, suggested a reverse blanket, starting in Paarl and ending in Pietermaritzburg. We agreed, though, that time constraints would mean we should aim to do the ride in two weeks. He suggested starting at Ponta da Ora and riding to Pietermaritzburg. I began to explore riding the Drakensberg to connect with the FC.
I had already found from the RTR and FC how little I knew about the Drakensberg, about where it started and ended and how it had shaped the country. It is arguably our most dominant physical feature and most important resource in the sense that it is the source of most of our water, but I have found that South Africans, like me, are generally ignorant of the range even though it has a looming presence in our lives.
Putting together a trail is also a challenge. It has to traverse the most remote parts of the country while ideally having access to tourist resources such as B&Bs where you can wash, eat and sleep.
But this a fun challenge. Given that trail riding is one of my favourite things to do, there is little hardship in this. Soon a little group of us were spending three or five days at a time checking out the various possibilities for a trail from Haenertsburg to Matatiele, where the route would join the FC.
I also scouted old book shops to get books on the Drakensberg and old wagon and prospector routes. Where I could find mountain bikers with local knowledge I contacted them for advice. In particular Dennis Lawrie, Glenn Harrison and Tim James helped with ideas and advice.
Google Earth is, of course, also invaluable, but most important is the 1:50 000 map. I have made so many visits to the map shop in Jan Smuts Avenue that I think I should be given shares.
There were several false starts and some areas are tougher to crack than others, but by early this month I was ready to try and cycle the whole thing in one go. I could have hunted around for a cycling partner, but as a back-of-the-field rider, I did not think this a sustainable option. I also thought that riding solo would bring an additional element to the experience.
Haenertsberg is an old gold mining town, one of many stretching through Bourke’s Luck, Pilgrim’s Rest, Mac Mac, Kaapsehoop and Barberton. It is a good place to start.
Ten kilometres out of the village there is a lake which feeds the Mohlapitse and Letaba rivers. The former carves its way through the Drakensberg to the Orrie Baragwanath pass. This goes down to the magnificent Oliphants valley.
The area is rainfall challenged, has contrasting red earth, an abundance of rocks with impressive succulents and even the odd baobab tree. It is also very hot.
Ohrigstad, over 150 years old, is a good spot to re-stock and re-fuel. Crystal Springs is a private nature reserve with an abundance of game and accommodation with breath-taking views of dramatic gorges.
Heading south there is a choice of going through In Die Diepte, a ride I am yet to do, or staying on the escarpment and heading for the Hartebeesvlakte, a massive area of state-owned land which is completely underdeveloped and the home to herds of blesbok.
By now you are entering the forested areas of Mpumalanga. There are several choices of route heading down towards Sudwala, perhaps joining the Mankele bike trails along the way.
I took a short piece of tar to the N4 and then rode along the main rail line to Elandshoek and up to Kaapsehoop, one the country’s most charming villages. There is more natural forest and plantation, including crossing the Ndogwana river, to Badplaas, which is also a good place to recharge. I then followed the Umkomazane river to near Warburton.
This part of the route is relatively flat and dominated by forestry. You follow forestry tracks and dirt roads through New Scotland to Amsterdam. The Luneberg/Wakkerstroom area has some of the best mountain bike riding in the country, including riding in a natural crater and up the Phongola valley.
The Buffalo valley crossing was also a highlight to me. I will be doing more riding on the Free State section as I think there is still a better route than the two I have so far used.
From Swinburne the best route will be to drop into the Lost Valley to Geluksburg. The KwaZulu-Naal section of the Drakensberg is the most developed and so has the most tar roads, but with input from locals, the mountain biker can now ride this part of the route without being on any busy roads. There are tarred sections which I would think should remain as cars are few and far between and the scenery is both dramatic and spell -binding.
I am writing this in Underberg, on a two-day break. I had considered continuing the journey south via Lesotho but this appears to add too much time to the overall trip.
Rather, the local mountain bikers I have spoken to, have sketched out a route they use which in part follows the Bushman’s Nek road. This will join the Freedom trail about 50 or 60km from Matatiele. I could end my ride here but I will ride to Dordrecht as I’d like this trip to have taken in the Drakensberg from end to end.
I have taken some trouble in the preparatory trips to arrange permits and have actively sought out farmers to discuss access issues. No problems have arisen and neither do I expect them to.
If this part of the trail does formalise over time I would expect that a conversation would start with the major landowners such as the forestry companies to be able to arrange blanket permits for riders.
1300km done, 500km to go.
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