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Authors: Jacques Marais; Susanna and Herman Mills
At last! Just what we've all needed: a guide to the most superlative mountain bike rides in SA – from the best downhill to the rockiest, wildest, hottest and most hellish rides. But wait, there's more: the best gravel cruise, greatest family ride, most charming ramble... So whether you're looking for the lung-busters or the metro options, here's the pick of the crop: SA's 20 top rides. Plus:
The regions and their character:
Augrabies - Best Gravel Cruise
Situated within the extreme northwest corner of South Africa, hunkered down within the muddy embrace of the mighty Gariep, you will find the expansive 160.000-hectare Richtersveld National Park. This mountain desert reserve offers a complete escape from everything urban.
Facilities are limited to low, brick fireplaces and a few bristly desert trees (and are in some cases non-existent), although park authorities are currently in the process of upgrading some of the camp sites by adding basic ablution facilities. So don't expect any luxuries when you arrive, clouded in red dust and good karma, at one of the five designated camping spots - De Hoop, Pootjiespram and Richtersberg on the river, with De Koei and Kokerboomkloof inland.
Self-sufficiency is a must if you're headed into this minimalist tableau of rock, sand and succulents, so ensure you have enough water, fuel and supplies to cope with any unforeseen emergencies. A sturdy 4x4 is required to negotiate some of the burlier routes, but a two-wheel drive vehicle with reasonable ground clearance will cope with many of the park roads. Opt for a river stay if its your first visit - the proximity of the water takes the edge off the searing heat, dust and lack of shelter.
Once you've settled in, hike to your heart's content, drift down the gentle rapids on an inflatable tube, indulge in a spot of fly-fishing or climb the razorback peaks crowding in close to the river. The mountain hiking will be challenging, especially along the many sandy sections, and it will certainly be a test of both character and endurance.
Rating by Jacques Marais:
DISTANCE - A moderate 39,8 km return/circular ride
The Once your headspace adjusts to the vast stretch of the ochre alluvial plains, jutting volcanic rock and the ferocious onslaught of the elements, the allure of the Richtersveld will surreptitiously begin to weave its spell. Contorted, smelly shepherd's trees (Boscia albitrunca), the alien loom of euphorbias, the antics of barking geckos - all will slowly but surely get under your skin. And when a gazillion glimmering stars swoon against the velvet black of the night, seemingly close enough for you to raise your hand and pluck one from the sky, you will grasp the desert's fatal attraction.
The harsh landscape, which consists in certain places of lava, porphyry and tuff more than 2.000 million years old, is a place of a myriad moods. Baster kokerboom, shepherd's tree and Karoo boerbean offer low cover along sandy riverbeds, while the lush vegetation along the river coils through the arid ranges like the fecund trail of a giant green python. Mammals are scarce, but you are sure to bump into your fair share of reptiles and arthropods (beetles, scorpions and spiders).
Keep an eye out for the Parabuthus granulatus, an exceptionally large and mean-spirited nocturnal scorpion, and probably the most poisonous of its kind in southern Africa. Birds abound along the river's edge, and sightings of fish eagles, darters, warblers, swifts and kingfishers will be on the cards.
How to get there:
The main access route to the Richtersveld is along the N7 passing through Springbok and onward to Steinkopf (52km), where you turn left along the R382 to Port Nolloth (93km). A gravel road turning right towards Lekkersing offers a rather long short cut, so I would advise you stick to the tar. The next town is Alexander Bay (85km), where you turn right towards Sendelingsdrift, another 100km along a gravel road (allow 1.5-2 hours). Remember to look out for the park signs as mining in the area is playing havoc with the road network.
The sandy gravel roads grinding through this land of wide horizons and stacked rock are sure to remain the domain of endurance mountain bikers for a long time to come. Start off with the moderately difficult ride below and, once you've ascertained your riding ability within the desert environment, start thinking about longer and/or circular route options.
Set off from De Hoop and follow the access road west, pedalling away from the river along a desert track varying from gritty hard-pack and pebble fields to sandy drifts (opt for the more compact sand alongside the road wherever this seems a better option).
One or two short, sharp climbs might get your endorphins going, but the overall ascent rates somewhere between gentle and moderate en route to road marker R5 (7.9km). Keep to the right here, meandering along the foothills of a series of spectacular rock ranges and through eroded gorges until you crank onto the immensity of the Koeroegab Plains, where the road opens up and levels out past marker R4 (another 4.7km). Stop off at the ancient tree just before you reach R4 - to the right of the road a grandfather boscia ekes out a tenuous existence, dispatching contorted ground roots to snake across the parched earth.
Keep right again from R4 along a gradual incline towards R3 (4.8km), turning left here towards marker R13 (4.6km) along the road towards Helskloof Gate. Sections of the road between R4 and here are currently under construction and, according to Arid Parks Management, many of these routes will be upgraded over the next few years.
The climb back to R4 (4.3km) is challenging, mainly because of rough road surfaces and sections of energy-sapping sand but, once you hit the return down to De Hoop, you can crank up to the big ring. As long as you keep up your speed, the cruise back into De Hoop should be a cinch. Chances are you will go over the handlebars at least once, though - we all did at some stage of this ride.
There are two ways in which to approach a Richtersveld cycling experience. The first is to base yourself at one of the camp sites and do daily rides from there, while the second would be to use a support vehicle and circumnavigate the park, cycling to a different camp every night. Your choice, but it makes sense to sleep in one place and avoid having to pitch camp every night after a full day of cycling.
When to go:
September to November and April to May are excellent times to get away to the Richtersveld. The hoary winter nights lack some of their severity, the daytime temperatures are not yet at their full intensity and dust storms are less frequent. Also, once every decade or so, unexpected spring rains might herald an explosion of desert blooms along Koeroegab Plains. Surprisingly, the weather is rather fickle, with mist, winds and cold fronts rolling in from the nearby coast.
The route to the Richtersveld is a long and arduous trek, wherever you're coming from, and a relaxing mountain bike stopover along the way will make for a welcome break. Two possible options along the N7 highway stand out, but nothing stops you from doing both...
Goegap Nature Reserve, situated approximately 15km east of Springbok between the N14 and R355, encompasses an area of 15.000 hectares consisting mainly of so-called 'Namaqualand Broken Veldt'. The singular granite koppies and sandy plains of the reserve offer sanctuary to more than 40 mammal and numerous bird species, but the true attraction of the area is the annual floral display for which this region is world-famous.
Biking is along a 4x4 track with some steep riding along Carolusberg, the highest point in the reserve, with distance options of 14 or 20km. Although there is quite a bit of rock and sand, it is possible to adapt the route choice in order to suit your own personal level of fitness. An entrance fee is payable at the gate and an additional rate is levied per rider.
Just on 68km south of Springbok, along the N7, you will find Kamieskroon: arguably one of South Africa's best-kept mountain hiking secrets. Four clearly signposted, well-planned routes traverse the Kamiesberg area east of town and will delight greenhorns and gearheads alike.
Nourivier (29km) is a moderate to easy circular route. Leiiefontein A (8.2km) offers a short ride that is perfect for the whole family while Leiiefontein B will attract the more accomplished riders. It can be done either as a straight-line 30km (you would need to arrange a pick-up at the end) or a challenging circular route comprising 49km. Finally, there's the easy Vissersplaat Circular, a ride of 7.5km offering great scenic views of the area.
Income earned from mountain hiking in the area goes to the Leiiefontein and Nourivier communities, so you can ride your bike and do a good deed at the same time.
Off-the bike entertainment:
If Namaqualand is renowned for one thing only, it is for the area's prolific floral wealth. Every year from August to September, the arid landscape is transformed into a fantastical flower garden filled with a thousand different colours. Amateur geologists, on the other hand, flock to the Northern Cape to revel in the bountiful mineral treasures of a region where semi-precious stones, crystals and other geological treasures are a dime a dozen. Rafting trips along the Gariep, South Africa's largest river by far, offer anything from a fun-filled day for the family to a death-defying rapid in the thundering Orange River Gorge.
And, with the Richtersveld nudging right up against Namibia's southern border, it may be an excellent idea to extend your trip long enough to visit the spectacular Fish River Canyon and some of the other outdoor charms offered by our northern neighbour.
OPPOSITE: Death-defying rides along gargantuan granite mounds are sure to get your adrenalin pumping.
North West Province
Jacques Marais is a professional photographer and writer who regularly works with leading local and international publications such as Sports Illustrated, GQ, FHM, Men's Health, Discovery, Quicksilver, Bicycling, Earthyear, Ride and Travesias, contributing articles and features on a range of outdoor activities, including adventure racing and other adrenaline sports. He has also acted as consulting and contributing editor to various magazines, and has closely followed the development of adventure racing on the African continent, covering a multitude of races both locally and internationally. Highlights include Africa Adventure Quest, Global Extreme, High Coast 400 (Sweden), Namib Desert Challenge (Namibia), G4 Challenge and the Arctic Team Challenge (Greenland). Jacques is a self-confessed trav-a-holic who has cycled more of this country's backroads and byways than most.
Susanna and Herman Mills met through mountain biking and their enduring passion for the sport saw them launching Ride magazine, initiating numerous off-road events, and producing a number of mountain biking books, including Adventure Sport Series: Mountain Biking and Mountain Bike Trails Guidebook.
Bicycling South Africa (Tim Brink): "And the photography is spectacular and inspirational - perfect to get you into the holiday mood!"
Drive Out: "For mountain bikers of any level, this book is an absolute must-have!"
Helderberg Sun (Anél Powell): "This reader-friendly guide to the often-gruelling sport is beautifully written and reads more like a travelogue than a sports manual."
Die Burger Buite (Willem Jordaan): "Vir die beginner of selfs die mees gesoute moddermaniak bied dié boek iets wat die koopprys beslis die moeite werd maak."
The Citizen (Julia Paterson): "This book is a well-produced, easy to read and a must-have reference for outdoor nuts."