On a mountain bike you can travel at just the right pace to fully appreciate the African bush, as FIONA MCINTOSH discovers in the big-game country of northern KwaZulu-Natal’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Pictures: iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Matthew Holt
Three years ago I weighed 94kg, had knee problems and couldn’t even run,” admitted Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. “I was advised by a doctor to either swim or bike to get fit. Living in a park with 1 200 crocodiles big enough to eat you, 800 hippos and an impressive range of sharks meant that swimming wasn’t an option, so cycling it was.”
A friend introduced him to Shane Webster, who organises the Big 5 MTB Series, and a few months later Andrew rode his first 25km event – the Monzi Hippo Challenge – on a borrowed bike with no shocks and V-brakes. “I completed the last two kilometres at a jog, when I bent the front wheel in a ditch,” Andrew recalled.
“The first time I rode with Shane I felt like a fat, panting pug being dragged around on a leash by his master. But several rides later (and a lot of patience from Shane), we started thinking about running an event in the park, and shaped Unplugged, a one-day ride on the Eastern Shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Then we headed off to explore the Lebombo mountain range. What a discovery – the Lebombo offers riding countryside comparable to Lesotho. Slowly the idea of a MTB staged event through all eight of iSimangaliso’s eco-systems began to evolve.
Together they hatched a plan to organise a 260km ride in the 332 000ha park. The route follows ancient animal migration paths, many through areas not normally open to the public, starting at uMkhuze in the park and riding on community land in the Lebombo Mountains, returning to uMkhuze. On day two, the trail rides through a different section of uMkhuze to the bordering Phinda Private Game Reserve – really a corridor between the two sections of the park – before re-entering iSimangaliso for the long ride all the way to False Bay on the Indian Ocean. Days three and four centre around Lake St Lucia.
In August 2013, 120 riders (60 teams of two) lined up for the start of the first iSimangaliso MTB 4 Day. “We were a bit apprehensive before the inaugural ride,” Andrew admitted. “We knew we had all the right ingredients for a world-class event, but riding through Big Five country adds an edge.”
On most other rides through big-game country, such as the well-established Tour de Tuli, participants ride in groups accompanied by guides, but on the iSimangaliso MTB 4 Day you ride in pairs. “The rangers check the route to make sure that there are no lion in the vicinity,” explained Shane. “And each rider wears a tracker so we know exactly where they are.” If anyone strays off the route they can expect an immediate phone call from the organisers.
The 2013 event was a resounding success that, above all, highlighted the diversity of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. The ride started with a bang. From the overnight camp at Mantuma in uMkhuze, the lucky lead riders spotted a young bull elephant nicknamed Malema alongside the road. More startled than the cyclists, he quickly moved off. From the park’s eMshopi gate it was a long uphill through community land into the Lebombo Mountains.
The infamous Fangs, which involved climbing from 70m to 520m, was a rude wake-up call for most but the roadside support lifted even the weariest spirits. First up was The Canine, which tore even the race snakes apart. The second hill was The Molar, which crushed most people’s spirit, and finally The Wisdom drummed in the need to train harder for next year. As they sped back to Mantuma the riders were cock-a-hoop, cruising the final section, and enjoying the large herds of impala, nyala and guinea fowl around the tented camp.
One of the highlights of the tour was the opportunity to explore the park once the riding was over for the day, and after a shower and massage it was off to the kuMasinga Hide for a spot of birding and game watching. Lady Luck was smiling. Not only were there plenty of hippo and birds but, as the riders enjoyed sundowners, three rhino came down to the waterhole for theirs. A dramatic sunset at the Nsumo Pan rounded off an exhilarating day.
Dawn in the magnificent setting of uMkhuze was possibly even more spectacular and, despite weary legs, everyone was itching to get back on their bike. Mountain biking is the perfect way to travel in the bush – it’s just the right speed at which to take in the environment, and enjoy the smells, the sounds and the ever-changing scenery.
The route of the second day led through the southern section of uMkhuze, a Big Five reserve that recently introduced lion, through the jaw-droppingly beautiful Big Five Phinda Private Game Reserve, onto some wonderful single track in the False Bay section of the park, and across the Hluhluwe River on a rickety pedestrian bridge to the overnight camp at Bonamanzi Game Reserve.
The game sightings were superb. Curious giraffe looked bewildered at the intrusion of so many two-wheelers; families of warthog strutted away indignantly with their tails in the air; ungainly wildebeest cantered off as riders sped past and there were several unplanned stops to allow rhino to lumber across the road. Everyone was buzzing with adrenalin as they arrived in camp.
From Bonamanzi the route of the third day followed 25km of flowing single track along the Nyalazi floodplain into the newly-opened Western Shores section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park – a glorious spin through open grassland and pans inhabited by elephant, rhino, hippo, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and numerous antelope species, and backdropped by forested coastal dunes.
After a short section of tar through the town of St Lucia, the gateway to iSimangaliso, it was on to the forested iGwalagwala trail alongside the Lake St Lucia Estuary to the St Lucia
Ski-boat Club. The boat cruise on the Lake St Lucia Estuary late that afternoon rounded off yet another magnificent day. Fish Eagles called from their tree top vantage points, crocodile lazed on the banks and pods of hippo obligingly posed for the cameras.
On the final morning, as on every day, each participant beat the drum when they came to collect their tracker, and a drum roll set the riders off on a circuit of the big-game territory on the Eastern Shores. And what a finale it was, accompanied by more game sightings, plus spotting whales from the dunes at Mission Rocks. A lucky pair of rear-enders encountered a very chilled black rhino – proving that you don’t have to be in front to get the best.
By the time the drum sounded the end of the inaugural iSimangaliso MTB 4 Day at the St Lucia Ski-boat Club, everyone understood Andrew’s desire to show this magnificent wilderness area to the MTB community. “You have to understand that in order to achieve World Heritage Status you have to have something that is unique,” he explained.
“The diversity in iSimangaliso, and in particular Lake St Lucia, is unique.” Not that any of the riders needed convincing about the uniqueness of this tour. “There’s nowhere else in the world that you can do this,” enthused one excited rider. “It’s a privilege.”
My guess is that the 2014 event, planned for August, will be a sell-out.