THE NORTH EAST DIVIDE OR
THE AFRICAN TREASURE TRAIL OR
THE LEGEND OF THE MINES
I have a love-hate relationship with mountain bike racing. When I first got onto a bike a couple of years ago I was at the back of the race field where I could soldier along on my own or chat to the backmarkers who had endless patience and the funniest chirps. I loved it.
Now that I’ve reached the middle of the race field, there is not much banter amongst the cyclists. Riders jostle one another in technical sections, and get a little grumpy when a rider ahead on a rocky climb teeters on the edge of a dishonourable dismount...racing sometimes makes me forget why I love to ride my bike.
So when Fiona Coward, the organiser of Sabie Experience and Panorama Tour, suggested being part of her reconnaissance trip to map out a new multi-day touring event it sounded like heaven.
Of course she hadn’t mentioned that, like her, the other tour riders were hardened Freedom Trail cyclists. The harsh, unsupported 2350km Race Across South Africa in winter each year is in a league on its own, and I worried about keeping up with them. I knew, though, that I was in safe hands when we had a meet-and-greet ride on the Saturday before the ride and I saw that none of the guys shave their legs. In fact, one of them is growing his grey beard for Sabie Experience so that he can live up to his team name: “The Old and the Pitiful!” With credentials that include the Freedom Challenge there are no racing snake egos in this bunch thank you very much.
Originally christened NED (North East Divide), the tour would start on a Sunday in Haenertsburg, close to Tzaneen, and would end in Bulembu, Swaziland the following Friday.
We travelled together from Pretoria to Haenertsburg and, while poring over topographical maps and comparing GPS waypoints, we were treated to fabulous food and a great view at Lamei Lodge. On day one of the tour we ate an undeserved breakfast at the lodge, including hot chocolate muffins straight out of the oven. No sweltering little tents and green eggs for us – this tour included spacious rooms, hot baths and outstanding food!
Joined by a local rider, Dylan, we left the picturesque Haenertsberg Village Hall. With a vague Pilgrim’s Rest feel, the town was established in the late 1800’s when the area experienced a short gold rush.
During the six days of the tour the legends surrounding the treasures of Africa became a theme as we passed through each area. We were intrigued by the area’s mining, forestry and ivory trade folklore. Interestingly South Africa has almost 6 000 abandoned mines. And while there is no question that mining and forestry have had a severe environmental impact, we were struck by the significant contribution that the industries have made to the character of Southern Africa.
Our guide for the first two days was Jaco Strydom, who is pioneering a route from Beit Bridge to Pietermaritzburg. On 27 May 2011 he will leave the South African border at the north of the country and make his way, unsupported, to Natal for the start of the Freedom Challenge, which will take him a further 2 350km to Cape Town in the Race Across South Africa.
We wound our way out of Haenertsberg, and after a few kilometres in the beautiful Magoebaskloof we reached a footpath that would take us up to the Wolkberg Reserve. After pushing for a few metres, Doug and Fiona showed me how much easier it is to walk up a steep path with a bike on your back – by the top of the path I was already starting to consider the Freedom Trail.
The climb that followed the portage took us over the intimidating Iron Crown mountain, and Neal had an inelegant dismount on one of the shale edges as he fought with his roadie shoes. Although it was steep and often technical the views carried us up to the Wolkberg Wilderness Mountain Reserve Office where we refilled our water, ate a snack under the trees, and took more photographs.
Within the first couple of hours of the ride I had rediscovered the thrill of testing my skills on my bicycle in new terrain without the pressure to finish at a particular time.
Jaco trailed at the back of the riders allowing us the freedom to ride at a pace that we could sustain for six days. [We quickly discovered his strategy, though: – also known as “Vakansieperd” he cruises at the back and moans about how he can’t keep up with the group on the climbs, but when he smells home he takes off like a holiday resort horse.]
After the most technical downward slide of little moving rocks that I have ever had the pleasure to ride, we screeched to a halt at the bottom of the valley to refill our water bottles at the first crossing of the Mohlapitse River. We crossed the river countless times as we rode through the valley lined with indigenous trees and less friendly wag-‘n-bietjie bushes. Thankfully we didn’t see any snakes or we would have had to wait a while for Neal to circumnavigate the Wolkberg mountains.
At the exit of the reserve we started to climb the Orrie Baragwanath Pass. It was hot and slow riding over technical crushed rock. A third of the way up we met up with Glenn the Medic (AKA “Don't-Call-Me-Unless-You’re- Unconscious-Or-You’ve- Stopped-Breathing”) who had our lunch packs and cold drinks. We had a short rest before making our way up the pass and into the Lekgalameetse (Place of Water) Reserve.
Unlike the hot, rocky grind of the pass, the reserve on the other side is an open, hard-baked downhill into a little Serengeti of running zebra. Jaco and I detoured to visit Wonderwoud, an enchanted forest in the reserve. We then raced down the tarred pass, stopping halfway down to take photo’s of the indigenous forest and waterfall.
After 8 tough hours in the saddle the last 10km was slightly too long and we gave up trying to catch the Vakansieperd. We were pleased to reach our overnight stop at Makutsi Camp at the foot of a stunning mountain, already turning pink in the setting sun.
After a hot bath and more good food supervised by our support angel, Ilette, we slept well and left early the following morning. Initially we had planned to end the day at Crystal Springs, but the guides realised that the terrain would make the 150km ride too much of a stretch, and there would have to be some scouting to determine the best option for the tour.
The first 9km of the ride out of Lekgalameetse the following day was slow but picture-perfect. We worked our way up out of the indigenous forest, crossing the Makutsi River more than a dozen times, and taking side-bets as to whether or not Glenn the Medic would get his beloved vehicle through the narrow rocky crossings on his own. At the top of the climb we played around on single track cattle paths near Mafefe that led us onto the unforgettable African Ivory Route. The group split into two to evaluate separate routes, but we all experienced countless thrilling downhills, each acting as a slingshot to catapult us over the bumps in-between.
The Ivory Route was a treat that ended in a descent of switchbacks so steep and rocky that holding onto the brakes was futile. We tried to take in the view on the way down, but it was way safer to look ahead. I wanted to console two youngsters at the bottom of the mountain who had been scared off by what Dylan referred to as his nut-cracking, jaw-shattering, helter-skelter descent, but those kids weren’t coming out of the bushes for a dusty woman wearing funny pants and a helmet!
Not sure when we would meet up with Glenn the Medic again we bought cold drinks at an unmarked spaza shop run by Esther Mabokwane. She insisted that I go on a guided tour of her beautiful home, and the language barrier became interesting. I explained to her that my surname was Garden, like the place where vegetables grow, and by the time we left her my name was Sharon Vegetable Garden, which is a very good start.
We all met up with Glenn under a huge indaba tree shortly afterwards, and then we crossed the Olifant’s River near a sluice gate. We split up again to scout different routes, and Fiona, Neal and Ben followed the treasure trail to recce a way around an andalusite mine while we took the less dusty option.
The rest of the day was very different to the lush forests of day one. The Venda landscape was dry and scrubby and the district road section of gravel was hot, with a slight drag that may see it booted out of the tour next year. However, the joy of the little villages was a unique experience. We stopped at an unmarked blue-roofed spaza. We spent some time with the owner discussing the name of the store and by the time we left, he had decided to call it “Remember”. So if you ever go through a tiny settlement in the Northern Province called Wimbledon look out for Mr Malapane’s forget-me-not spaza that has a very comfortable bench on the stoep.
By this time we had split up into small groups and Dylan, Jaco and I avoided the tar by finding routes through the pretty Venda villages. We did notice a “We were here” scratched in the dust by Derek and Doug, but we were in no hurry to catch up to them as they ate their way from spaza to spaza. We chatted to friendly, wide-eyed locals who were keen to try out their English on us...my favourite was a youngster on his way back from school who kept saying “Booootiful” as we did a bit of rock-hopping down an embankment.
We all met up at a garage in Burgersfort and the last 500m was on tar, much to Jaco’s disgust...he plans to limit the use of sealed surfaces on his ride from Beit to Cape to 10%. The gravel seam next to tar also counts as a sealed surface, so later in the trip he sometimes picked up his bike and carried it in protest when tar was only option.
With no hope of reaching Crystal Springs before sunset we called on our support angel, Ilette, to drive us back to the luxury of the Clubhouse, where we were joined by our guide for the next leg of the tour, the infamous Sabie Experience route director, Dennis Lawrie
After yet another huge breakfast we started day three with a ride through John Hood’s farm where herds of eland, zebra and rooihartebees scattered as soon as they caught our scent. We soon forgave Dennis for his Sabie Experience sins when treated us to a relatively easy climb almost to the top of Mount Anderson and then a relaxed day of riding on the endless escarpment.
Continuing with the African treasure theme, Dennis gave us some insight into the history of forestry in the area. According to the legend, a stray bullet from a hunter in the Sabie area in the late 1800’s chipped the rock and revealed gold. The resulting gold mines needed pit props and the timber industry was started. The first commercial trees were planted in 1875 – great foresight considering that the trees take at least a decade to grow to a useful height - and today Sabie is surrounded by one of the largest man-made forestry areas in the world. (www.sabie.co.za)
We rode the familiar Stairway to Heaven in reverse; lunched on top of the world; and the braver souls then took a dip in the icy pool tucked away in the forest at the source of the Sabie River.
The trouble with touring, I discovered, is that you sometimes forget that you aren’t alone, and when Dennis and Ben took a sharp turn to the right on a fast descent I followed suit without thinking of the rider behind me. By the time my bike could be reigned in to follow Dennis, Neal was tumbling over his handlebars to avoid me. He fell with grace and without serious injury, but he still doesn’t quite understand how he got the drinks penalty that night for the incident.
Before we knew it we were at a short stretch of tar that led to 10km of gravel downhill to our stop at Gunyatoo Trout Farm just off Long Tom Pass. The downhill was fabulous, although visibility was dangerously poor in the billowing dust from the leading cyclists. At our overnight stop Ilette had now been replaced by Rudolf, who took care of our bags. Debbie and her team from Gunyatoo, sorted out our laundry and prepared a very fancy dinner that night with Borscht and little potjies full of Indonesian chicken stew.
The next day we climbed for about 10km on forestry roads covered in a soft, grey powder that looked a little like the surface of the moon.
We had more runaway downhills and a couple of punctures as we dropped into the valley and prepared ourselves for the 27km climb up to Kaapsehoop. We had an unexpected portage when we took a wrong turn – Ben was blamed and redeemed himself by going over his handlebars on the way down. He climbed out of the section with an enthusiastic attempt to convince us that it should form part of the tour: “Wasn’t that a fabulous portage?”
The beginning of the climb up to Kaapsehoop was rugged, steep and very hot, and as soon as the gradient and terrain eased we stopped for lunch in a shady spot. We got back onto the bikes and found a good rhythm for the next section of the climb before resting again in the shade, waiting for Jaco. As usual the Vakansieperd flew off while we were still refilling water bottles and Neal and I hung around at the back and took photographs of the interesting rock formations on the way up the mountain.
We entered Kaapsehoop on an offroad track – the town is definitely worth the climb, with wild horses, quaint houses and good pancakes. According to lowveldinfo.com gold was found here in the late 1800’s and the prospectors called the place Duiwelskantoor ('devils office') because " The mountains are so rugged that only the devil could live here".
The wild horses are apparently descendants of pit ponies that were freed in the area, and they roam the town and countryside in swirls of mist. After well-deserved pancakes and waffles with Lieflap, the spaniel, at the Koek-en- Pan we unpacked at the local backpackers. We met up with our guide for the rest of the tour, Glenn “Forest” Harrison, a gracious, unassuming adventurer who holds the single speed record on the Freedom Challenge – 15 days to ride to cross the country offroad with only one gear on a rigid fork Giant 29er.
Glenn felt sorry for us after the long climb of the previous day, so day four of the tour was a relaxed, easy ride. We started with a breathtaking view of the lowveld from the lookout near Kaapsehoop. The fynbos smell, boulders and white sand is so reminiscent of the Cape that I expected to see a lighthouse on the cliff with the sea in the valley below. We stopped at the Stonehenge of rocks a little further on which is apparently a sundial from the air. After riding along the escarpment again, Glenn took us down switchbacks that we renamed Forest Falls in his honour. Unlike the rocky gravel of our other downhills, we sailed down on a greener road past vegetation straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
We rode through the overgrown tea farm, Senteeko, which was virtually abandoned after labour disputes a couple of years ago. We stopped for a picnic (and a snooze for some) in a pine forest. To reach our overnight stop at Queensview Hiking Hut we inadvertently split up into two groups – some had a muddier route than others. Proving that good old mapwork is sometimes better than modern technology Rudolf’s GPS had him circling the property for a long time trying to find the entrance.
After great boerekos, including Marie’s cinnamon pampoenkoekies we slept well in the school-like dormitories and climbed on our bikes for the last leg of our journey over the border to Bulembu, Swaziland.
And not in the least bit tired after the relaxed pace of the tour, we made the most of every last glorious kilometre. During the day we all got to try out Glenn’s Giant 29 inch bike, and I was a bit worried that after 60km Neal wasn’t going to give it back...a little sceptical of the benefits before the tour, Neal is now in the market for a 29er.
Derek and Ben both had high-speed falls caused by an ugly rut halfway down one of the hills. Much later in Bulembu Glenn the Medic fixed the gash in Ben’s knee, but not before Ben had to feign unconsciousness to justify the attention.
After the downhill we took a couple of hours to ride the legendary Barberton Classic climb, and then dropped a little to fill our water bottles at a stream in the valley. The views were beautiful, and the change in vegetation as we moved towards Swaziland was marked – each hilltop was greener than the one before.
The only hint at a mining legacy in the area is the gently rusting cable car infrastructure that spans the mountains and was once used to ferry asbestos all the way from Swaziland to Barbeton. Even the names of the abandoned mines are inspired – my favourite was the “Maid of the Mountain Mine” near the border.
Far too soon for our liking we reached a boom that signalled the end of the dirt for our treasure trail - the remaining 25km of the tour would be on the newly tarred road to Josefsdal Border post.
We lunched in the forest from the well-stocked lunch and snack boxes that Wim and Marie from Queen Rose had packed, and then hit the hot tar to Bulembu. Jaco trailed at the back – grumpy about the sealed surface. Ben took off like a rocket and was not seen again until later that day – his excuse was that his family was waiting for him in Bulembu and he needed medical attention, but he was still temporarily voted out of the tribe.
We swooped down the tar and climbed slowly back up in the scorching heat. Glenn the Medic’s big rescue vehicle with flashing lights behind us protected us from the traffic. Around 5km from the border post we decided to park under some trees and wait for Jaco. We were lying down in the shade when he went whizzing past shouting: “Watse gesittery is dit hierdie?” We all jumped up and spent the next couple of kilometres reeling him in.
The border posts were friendly and fast and we raced into Bulembu. The town was built and operated by a mining company that mined chrysotile or white asbestos for more than 60 years. When the mine closed down in 2001 the town was abandoned. Bulembu is being revived with assistance from a Canadian charity, providing care to 2,000 orphaned and vulnerable children. The townspeople have a vision to become self-sustaining by 2020.
The place has a “lost city” feel to it, including a decaying and deserted movie-theatre with two massive projectors still in place in a dark room upstairs. We had a great evening around the fire at the Bulembu Lodge and were quite sad to drive out of town the following morning while the mountains were still covered in mist.
It is impossible to do justice to the atmosphere, the riding and the views of the treasure trail. Touring, unlike racing, allows the riders stop for every photo opportunity; to listen to the local children whoop in delight when someone in the group pops a wheelie, and to just slowly soak up the awesomeness of this country in the company of like-minded adventurers...