An MTB adventure through the coastal forest of northern KwaZulu-Natal offers plenty of game and a fascinating insight into Zulu culture…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Supplied
“Watch out for hippo on your way back,” warned Debbie Cooper, executive assistant to the CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, as she described how to get to the start of one of the trails through the World Heritage Site. “We often see them wandering the streets of St Lucia, especially at dusk. I found one grazing in my garden a few weeks ago.”
Unsure whether this was a local joke or a serious threat, we hopped on our bikes and cycled down to the boardwalk near the St Lucia ski-boat club, planning to get a feel for the area and work up an appetite. Here, more signs warned of sightings of hippo and crocodile. Although an easy ride, the boardwalk runs along the edge of the estuary so we knew we’d need to keep our wits about us. Sure enough, we’d only gone a couple of hundred metres before we had our cameras out. There, motionless in the shallows, were four big crocs.
The gateway to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, St Lucia has a sleepy appearance that belies its capacity for adventure. As we spun cautiously along the raised path, we passed dog walkers and local mums pushing strollers, all seemingly oblivious to the inherent dangers of this lovely route through coastal forest.
Concluding that perhaps we were exaggerating the risk, we pedalled on until the walkway became a sandy track that ran parallel to St Lucia’s magnificent sandy beach. We parked our bikes near the shower block and went off for a dip in the sea.
I’d brought our bikes to northern KwaZulu-Natal intending to intersperse game drives in the park with time in the saddle. So, the following morning we rode the leafy Igwalagwala Trail, continuing through town and into the game park section of the iSimangaliso’s Eastern Shores.
There are no lion, buffalo or elephant in this section so walking, running and cycling are permitted, but there’s plenty of plains game, along with hippo and croc. We were fortunate with our sightings, startling a herd of zebra and numerous buck as we sped along the flowing single track before heading back to town. It was a wonderful introduction to the diverse environments of the region.
A couple of days later we signed up for a guided MTB tour with Xolani ‘Theo’ Gina, a local entrepreneur who offers game drives as well as walking and mountain-biking tours in the park and to local villages.
“So, what would you like to see today?” asked Theo. “I have various cultural and nature tours including visits to schools, churches, markets and to see performing arts. Or we can go for a ride in the bush.” Spoilt for choice we dithered, and so Theo decided to give us a bit of everything.
It was typical of this passionate young man, as we soon discovered. So proud of his environment and people. Only a short distance down the trail he stopped to point out a buffalo thorn tree (Ziziphus mucronata)
“In Zulu culture this tree guides the ancestors’ spirits,” Theo informed us. “If a family member dies away from home we use a small branch to collect the spirit and take it back to our homestead. We buy a ticket for the branch on the bus ride home, because it is now with the spirit, and talk to it about the journey. When we arrive home we take the branch to the ancestor’s hut so the deceased spirit is then at the homestead.” The tree can also be used to cover the graves of Zulu people, we learned.
Our introduction to the unique flora and fauna of the St Lucia region continued as we rode on to the nearby Khula village. We learnt a few words of Zulu too, which came in very handy when he introduced us to the sangoma and various elders.
“Unjani?” (How are you?) we asked. “Ngiyaphila,” (I’m fine) came the reply. Sadly our newly acquired vocabulary was then pretty much exhausted but Theo translated as the villagers asked what we were doing in St Lucia and answered our questions, before we took our leave.
A genuinely lovely experience and a far cry from so many of the contrived ‘cultural experiences’ laid on for tourists. The three-hour ride culminated in a visit to the Isiphaphalazi Butterfly House at the Manukelana organic nursery in Khula Village. Theo was a fount of knowledge on the indigenous butterflies and their coastal forest habitats, and took the opportunity to enlighten us on a variety of other topics, from the history of the Rastafarians who live in the Dukuduku Forest to the impact of the wood carvers along the St Lucia road.
You can hire bikes from the office in town, but I’d thoroughly recommend a guided tour: Theo trained as a field and cultural guide then gained experience with local safari operators before setting up his own business in 2010. He knows his stuff and is a thoughtful and entertaining guide.
“Theo is a good example of how iSimangaliso’s Rural Enterprise Programme can empower young businessmen,” explained Thandi Shabalala, tourism information coordinator for iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Initially Theo underwent tour-guide training through one of iSimangaliso’s learnership programmes and received mentorship that has moulded his presentation skills.
Theo then developed his business skills by joining the iSimangaliso Entrepreneur Development Programme, which helped him establish Theo Tours. His company is a unique addition to the mix of activities at iSimangaliso.
With Theo Tours, tourists have the chance to cycle up close to the flora, bird life and small game that the area is enriched with, accompanied by a passionate nature lover with extensive indigenous knowledge.
After a relaxing break in St Lucia we headed north to Hluhluwe for the second part of our Maputaland adventure. Julian Simon, a keen mountain biker I’d met on the iSimangaliso MTB 4 Day, offered to take us on a tour of the False Bay section of iSimangaliso.
“Initially, False Bay only offered walking trails,” said Julian as we wove our way through forest on the narrow, single-track Ingwe route. “Then, in 2006, members of our local MTB group, the Hluhluwe Rhino Chargers, started riding here in earnest.”
He explained that events such as the annual Hluhluwe SuperSpar Rhino Charge, and the annual iSimangaliso MTB 4 Day, have really helped develop the trails and have given the park exposure to the mountain-biking community, You can now ride for about 100km without covering the same ground.
Cycling along the shore of Lake St Lucia, we stopped to admire some of the fossils for which the lake is famous, keeping a wary eye open for hippos and crocs. Then it was back into the trees again. “This is sand forest,” Julian told us. “It’s established on old dune lines and is known for its huge plant diversity. The botanists generally discover at least one new species a year. There’s great birding too.”
Not that I had much time to smell the flowers or look at the birds. The riding through the trees was fast and tricky at times so my more experienced companions had to stop regularly to let me catch up. But they took the opportunity to enjoy the forest before we turned onto a more forgiving management track, sighting nyala, red duiker and a little suni antelope as we headed to the reserve’s more distant reaches. We were riding where few others had been before; visitors can only drive to lakeside picnic sites so if you want to really explore this pristine reserve you need to go on foot or bike.
That said, since there’s not much route marking, you’d have to be a pretty competent, self-sufficient rider to go deep into the forest on your own. I was extremely glad to be in the presence of an experienced, patient guide.
“A lot of the False Bay trails are quite technical and very sandy in places so are a challenge for serious mountain bikers, but overall I think the park appeals more to nature lovers with a relaxed approach,” said Julian as I relived some of my scarier moments of ducking and diving through the trees.
It had been an exciting week in which I felt we’d barely scratched the surface of the trails on offer. And there’s certainly plenty of both easy and high-adrenalin riding in Maputaland.
In a Nutshell
- The mountain biking around St Lucia is easy and suitable for riders of all ages and abilities. If you plan to ride anywhere other than along the lakeside and management tracks of False Bay make sure you have a map and clear directions. Either ride on tubeless tyres (with sealant) or bring loads of patches, as thorns are plentiful on the forest trails.
- St Lucia MTB hire and tours: Theo Tours 072 336 0850, [email protected], www.theotours.co.za
Where to Stay
- St Lucia: @ Heritage House is an upmarket, safari-chic B&B in town. 035 590 1555, atheritagehouse.com
- False Bay: There is camping in False Bay but the facilities are rustic and dated. Book through KZN Wildlife Reservations 033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com
- Hluhluwe River Lodge, run by keen mountain bikers Gavin and Bridget Dickson, offers accommodation in various luxury chalets and in a two-bedroom self-catering house. They have single-speed mountain bikes available for hire and dish out maps and useful info. 035 562 0247, www.hluhluwe.co.za
- The Bushwillow Collection offers fully catered lodge accommodation as well as self-catering chalets and a self-catering cottage. 073 151 6776, www.bushwillow.com
Want to Ride More?
- The Hluhluwe SuperSpar Rhino Charge comprises a 50, 25 and 10km ride in False Bay. This year’s event takes place on 29 October 2016.
- If you really want to explore Maputaland on a bike sign up for the annual iSimangaliso MTB 4 Day, a 260km stage race that leads from St Lucia, through the Eastern and Western Shores sections of the Wetland Park, before traversing the exclusive Big Five Phinda Private Game Reserve to the finish in the Mkuze section of iSimangaliso.