Best Mountain Bike Rides in South Africa

A guide to the most superlative mountain bike rides in South Africa
Marais. J.; Mills, S. & H.
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Best Mountain Bike Rides in South Africa

Authors: Jacques Marais; Susanna and Herman Mills
Struik Publishers
Cape Town, 2004
ISBN: 1868728250
Soft cover, 21x25 cm, 224 pages, throughout colour photos and maps

Publisher’s note:

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:

colour maps
altitude profiles
detailed route descriptions
terrain-specific riding tips
distance, gradient & ability gradings
loads of photos to show the conditions

The regions and their character:

Augrabies - Best Gravel Cruise
Baviaans - Best Back Country Bash
Cederberg - Best Multi-day Ride
Groenkloof - Best Metro Ride
Groot Marcio - Rockiest Ride
Hogsback - Most Fantastical Ride
Ingwe - Best Just-out-of-Town Ride
Knysna - Coolest Singletrack
Koranna - Most All-Round Epic
Kruger - Wildest Ride
Midlands - Best Ramble
Overberg - Best Riding Region
Rhodes - Biggest Lung-Buster
Richtersveld - Hottest Ride
Sabie - Best Forest Mecca
South Coast - Best Family-on-Holiday Ride
Swartberg - Most Hellish Ride
Thabaphaswa - Best Bushveld Ride
Tokai - Best Downhill
Wild Coast - Most Adventurous Ride

Example: Mountain-biking in the Richtersveld

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
TIME IN THE SADDLE - 3-4 hours
DANGER - Exposure, dust storms, thorns, venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders
TECHNICAL LEVEL - Extreme corrugations, deep sand, pebble fields, thorns, rutted tracks, lack of traction GRADIENT - A gentle ascent plus a few short, sharp climbs

The Setting:

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.

Best ride:

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.

Other rides:

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.
Fast facts:
ROUTE A there-and-back route with a circular section.
TRAFFIC Nothing for days; maybe a few 4x4 vehicles and the odd goatherd.
ATTRACTIONS Mind space; soul regeneration; endless scenic vistas; geckos and some really weird trees. START POINT De Hoop camp site: 28°1D.8D1'South, 17°1D.673'East
FACILITIES Running water (if you're camped next to the river). Take a spade if you plan to go to the loo. ENTRY FEE Pay your park entry fee and you ride for free - consider getting a Wild Card for major discounts. CONTACT NUMBERS Richtersveld National Park: [027] 831-15D6 Map info: Craig Beech at
BEWARE OF Desert ecosystems are extremely fragile and careless actions will upset their delicate balance. THUMBS DOWN In this remote desert environment, heat and sand are givens. You will have to push your bike through patches of soft sand and cycling during the heat of the day should be avoided.

The regions of South Africa:

Western Cape
Nowhere else in our country will you get more ride for your rand than in the sprawling Western Cape region. Five of our featured flagship rides are set in the province: the Tokai singletrack on the Peninsula, Grootvadersbosch in the Overberg, a sandstone trail through the Cederberg, a tortuous climb into the menacing Swartberg ranges and the unrivalled Harkerville ride near Knysna. Two regions not included in this book but deserving of special mention are Ceres (specifically Eselfontein Farm with its glorious fynbos singletrack] and Montagu, a country dorp with a superb selection of off-road routes.

Eastern Cape
Diverse riding is the name of the game in the Eastern Cape and the four featured rides in this province will take you to dense forest [Hogsback], the subalpine landscape of the southern Drakensberg [Rhodes), arid thornveld savanna (Baviaans River Conservancy) and a breathtaking subtropical coastline [Wild Coast], Riding within this heartland of the amaXhosa will transport you beyond well-marked routes and cell phone reception into the domain of full-on MTB adventure, so be prepared.

Northern Cape
Although the barren plains and mountainous desert of the Northern Cape are not normally associated with mountain hiking, this region boasts several superb riding spots. Augrabies National Park rates as one of my favourite gravel game rides, while the Richtersveld will test your cycling skills to the limit.

Home to the majority of the country's cyclists, Gauteng, the smallest and most dynamic province in South Africa, is losing its natural areas piece by piece to urbanisation. Those who foresaw this unbridled development have conserved a few pockets of nature where it is still possible to be a mountain hiking purist. Hemmed in by the sky-scrapers, freeways and historical monuments of Pretoria [Tshwane] lies Fountains Valley, a green gem of inestimable value that is being rehabilitated to its original natural glory by 'the garden city' authorities. We chose Groenkloof Nature Reserve for its delightful close-up encounters with non-predatory African game and the peace of mind afforded by controlled access to the reserve. Ingwe Bush Camp, nestling against the Magaliesberg massif in the shadow of Nooitgedacht, was our next choice for its historical significance, mystic beauty and the affordability of its tented camp experience. Nooitgedacht, the very highest point of the Magaliesberg, is visible from the northwestern suburbs of Johannesburg, a highly accessible, 45-minute drive away.

North West Province
This large, rural province, bordering on Botswana, still remains largely undiscovered. The long-time locals of Groot Marico told us how this area was even overlooked by engineers of the infamous 194B Group Areas Act, resulting in a very rare Indian community that has roots way back in the 180Ds. This uniqueness extends into the absolute Eden that off-road cyclists can experience. Tough and definitely for the more adventurous, riding here is a heady mix of pushing back frontiers and the clock. It simply will not fail to make a deposit into your spiritual bank account.

Legions of ride options exist in this very scenic province, but local riders remain tight-lipped since there are regrettably very few rides they do that are 'legal'. The official on-again-off-again status of mountain hiking in this province led to Mike's Pass, a stunning ride in Cathedral Peak, being omitted. Consequently, we 'discovered' KZN Wildlife's lovely Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve in Umzinto, slightly inland, on the South Coast. And the Midlands Meander has certainly come of age in terms of making the journey better than the destination. We suggest that you do your shopping by bike. So never leave the bikes behind again because you 'don't know where to ride' if you go on holiday to KwaZulu-Natal.

The landlocked Mpumalanga province is host to the largest commercial forest in the world. At the escarpment, mountainous terrain sheers off dramatically to the Lowveld and coastal plains of Mozambique in the blue distance. The capital of off-road cycling is the little town of Sabie, where local riders have worked with forestry landowners to create a hub of delectable off-road rides carpeted with pine needles and infused with oxygen. If you decide to visit the Lowveld, do not miss an unforgettable wild ride with the big five in the Kruger National Park. An amazing experience at a price that local cyclists can definitely afford.

Free State
In 199D, the Koranna Two Mountains Trail was the first official off-road bicycle trail to be created and marketed in South Africa. Over a decade later, it has lost none of its allure for mountain bikers. These mountains thrust themselves up like lone sentinels in the flat countryside. The Koranna Mountains are also a fascinating window on South African history - stretching across the full spectrum from Bushmen to Koranna, Boer to Brit and now, of course, bicycles.

Limpopo Province
In an area that has been a migratory route since the dawn of mankind, Thabaphaswa was selected for its minute attention to detail in terms of creating a genuine ecotourism experience.
The Thabaphaswa Mountain, central to this ride, is a timeless landmark that travellers use to navigate their way going north [or south] on their travels into Africa.

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.

Media Reviews:

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."