A great way to discover the KZN Midlands is by mountain bike on a Midlands MTB Meander. Even better is that it can be adapted to suit any level of cycling ability…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey & supplied
As I raised my glass to a fine few days in the saddle, I mused how right Ernest Hemingway was when he wrote, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
For the past four days we had sweated up and coasted down some of the most beautiful hills in South Africa as we meandered through the Natal Midlands enjoying the rolling green countryside, the wildlife, the history and, of course, the arts and crafts for which the area is famous. Ours was a more active meander than the more popular driving tour, but that made it all the more rewarding.
Now, as we lazed in the garden of Yellowwood Café, we felt a sense of achievement. And, in a way, a sense of loss. After lunch it would be back to our cars and reality. But for now we were enjoying a meal of ‘slow food’. The café, housed in an historic farmhouse built in 1872 by Sir George Sutton, is as quaint and laid back as anything you’ll find in the Midlands, and, for it, cooking is an art form while the view over Howick Falls, known to the Zulu people as KwaNogqaza, or ‘place of the tall one’, was as impressive as any of the spectacular natural features we’d cycled past.
Earlier that day we’d ridden along the top of the precipitous sandstone cliffs of the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve, passing zebra grazing nonchalantly by the side of the track. As we reminisced over the ride, a cheeky donkey sneaked up and, much to the delight of the children in the group, started nibbling at my handlebars through the fence. It seemed a fitting finale to a superb cycling holiday.
The guided and fully-catered four-day Midlands MTB Meander offered by Active Escapes is a great way to discover the diverse mountain-biking terrain on offer in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and will appeal to mountain bikers of all ages and interests. One of the attractions is that it can be adapted to suit the ability of any rider, and, as there’s always a back-up vehicle in support, it makes for a great family holiday. There are options for technical riders to test themselves on the hand-crafted single-track trails of Karkloof, while those with limited skills can stick to easy routes through forests and farmlands. You ride about 30 to 40km a day and overnight in luxurious guest houses and B&Bs – no 05h00 calls or roughing it on this tour, rather you take it slowly, stopping for tea breaks at scenic locations or when your guide identifies unusual bird calls.
The tour starts near Lower Lotheni in the foothills of the Drakensberg, then makes its way eastwards towards the town of Howick, taking riders over an intriguing cross section of countryside and through several biomes, including mist-belt grasslands, wetlands, montane forests and farmlands. The Midlands is home to many passionate mountain bikers who, through a system of sanctioned access with forest owners such as Sappi, have created the largest network of single-track available in the country. If you’re looking for quality time in the saddle, combining well-maintained trails with pastoral scenery, warm hospitality and some of the finest cuisine that the Midlands has to offer, this one’s for you.
Not that it’s a walk in the park. The trail begins a lofty 1 877 metres above sea level and the first short but steep farm track will get your heart pumping. For most of the Day One you follow an undulating route over hills and dales, enjoying sightings of typical wetland and grassland birds, before checking in to your luxury suite in the thatched manor house on the secluded eco-estate of Bramleigh Manor.
Day Two is a relaxed ride that takes in some of the best hillside scenery the Midlands has to offer. Once again the fauna and flora along the route are a highlight. Jackal, reedbuck, common duiker and bushbuck are frequently sighted, and you might be fortunate enough to spot all three crane species (Blue, Wattled and Grey-crowned). Much of the riding is on farm roads, but you end the day by descending into the Balgowan Valley on sections of single-track created for the Michaelhouse MTB race. After riding past the historic red-brick school buildings, you arrive at your home for the night, Beacon Vlei Farm, in time for a relaxed lunch under the trees and, if you feel inclined, a swim in the dam.
After a farmer’s breakfast on Day Three, you set off on the most exciting stage of the tour. The trail climbs steadily out of the valley and up towards the first summit of the day from where you get magnificent views back over Balgowan to the Drakensberg. You then descend rapidly for a few kilometres before climbing again via district roads and through a patch of cool indigenous forest towards Curry’s Post. (In true ‘leisure biking’ style, transfers can be arranged to the top of Curry’s Post for the less fit.) Once at the top, you meander along cool forestry roads and then up towards Khyber Pass, from where it’s eight kilometres of flowing downhill single-track into the fertile Karkloof Valley and on to your home for the night, Thistledown Country House. After lunch you can enjoy various additional activities, such as zip-lining through the trees on the Karkloof Canopy Tour or visiting the hides at the Karkloof Conservation Centre, or, of course, you can simply chill. Your host, Norma, is a renowned local chef and in the evening you will be treated to some of the best country-style cooking in the Midlands.
The final day offers a great mix of spectacular scenery and fun riding, taking you through the heart of Karkloof single-track territory where the more technical riders can test their mettle on the curves, rock gardens and berms. Those of a more leisurely bent can follow less technical routes to Karkloof Falls and then along forest tracks overlooking the acacia thornveld of Game Valley, from where riders often spot giraffe and buffalo grazing below. As you contour along the ridge, the landscape opens up, giving you a bird’s-eye perspective of the three spurs and Albert Falls Dam. A short portage across a stream takes you into the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve and an exciting ride along the edge of an escarpment to Yellowwood Café just outside the reserve. It’s such a superb ride that your only regret will be that it has to end.
- The trail that can be adapted to suit riders of all ages and levels of experience. Novices can follow straightforward trails, while the extensive single-track of Karkloof and Howick will challenge those with a penchant for adrenaline kicks. If you’re tired, don’t feel like cycling, or simply want go along for the ride, you can jump in the back-up vehicle.
- The tour is offered year round, but April to September is the best time.