Words Fiona McIntosh, pics Fiona McIntosh, Matthew Holt, Andrew Wonnacott
Cresting the hill we saw a bike lying on the track. It was tricky terrain so we feared the worst, but on closer inspection realised that the first rider in our merry band, Sean Privett, had not taken a fall but rather was crouching, peering at the fynbos. “Look at this,” he exclaimed in delight, pointing to a clump of small yellow and red flower heads. “This is Leucospermum prostratum, a vulnerable, ground creeping pincushion that is endemic to the Overberg sandstone fynbos.” We grinned, caught up in his enthusiasm but not entirely appreciating the significance of his find. He continued: “Instead of attracting birds or insects, this pincushion is pollinated by mice, which are drawn to the sweet, yeasty smelling flowers.”
It was one of the many floral treats of our three-day, Cycle Down South mountain-biking expedition from the quaint Overberg town of Stanford to Cape Agulhas, at the southernmost tip of the continent. The new self-guided and fully supported tour, partnered and endorsed by the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy and SANParks, is a fascinating voyage of discovery. Following dedicated mountain-bike paths, gravel roads and park management tracks, the route traverses the Agulhas Plain as it meanders through the foothills and plains of the southern Overberg. En route riders encounter quirky small towns and the area’s unique and endangered fynbos, including Overberg sandstone fynbos, limestone fynbos and one of the last remnants of Elim ferricrete fynbos.
On our first day we stopped at Stanford for a late lunch before handing our overnight bags to the Cycle Down South team and hopping on our bikes for a leisurely spin along quiet gravel roads to Witkrans, the first overnight stop. The tour is normally self-guided, but Wild went along when Sean, the trail developer, set out on a final recce of the route. Although the detailed trail narrative gave us plenty of background on the area as well as clues about where we might spot rare and endangered plant species, we knew that his trained botanist’s eye and encyclopaedic knowledge would enhance the journey.
Our bags were waiting in the cosy Witkrans Cottage when we arrived and after a quick shower we combined route planning with a tasting of wines from the nearby Lomond Estate. We were a mixed group of fit, competent riders and 'recreational' bikers, so after studying the maps and route descriptions we decided to split into two, the fit group taking the high road, the leisure bikers the longer touring route past the Lomond vineyards to our lunch stop in the village of Baardskeerdersbos. Despite my limited technical skills, I opted for the tougher route, joining the lean, shaven-legged enthusiasts on the single track that climbed steeply out of Flower Valley. I had to push my bike on a couple of the steeper sections but I had no regrets. Flower Valley was purchased in 1999 by the British-based conservation NGO Fauna and Flora International in order to protect the magnificent fynbos of the valley. It was a glorious ride.
Once at the top of the ridge we could see for miles and enjoyed a breather before the steep descent on more custom-built single track.
Once at the top of the ridge we could see for miles and enjoyed a breather before the steep descent on more custom-built single track down to Avuka Dam. A section of easy gravel road cruising and another steep climb took us to the top of the hill above Farm 215 where Billy Robertson was waiting with refreshments and the support vehicle. The next section of the trail, through the pristine Farm 215 Nature Reserve, was as good as it gets. We stopped often to admire the exquisite fynbos and the views across to Dyer Island before the final climb and long downhill into the arty village of Baardskeerdersbos, where we were united with the rest of our group at the house of local artist and bread maker Niel Jonker.
Several pizzas and glasses of wine later, we were back on the gravel roads heading towards Wolvengat, our overnight stop. The scenery had changed and the route was now flanked by ploughed fields in which elegant blue cranes foraged. The rich shale soils that once supported the critically endangered Elim fynbos have long been exploited for agriculture, all but wiping out the fynbos, yet we were on the lookout for the Elim cone bush, Leucadendron elimense, that may be spotted along the route. Sean held back, teasing us with the treasure hunt until we correctly identified the very rare protea, then we continued into the Waterford section of the Agulhas National Park. What a contrast. Riding through this recently acquired section of the park, with its beautiful, pristine fynbos vegetation alive with flitting Cape sugarbirds and sunbirds, certainly emphasised the merits of conservation.
We were up bright and early on the final day. Most of the journey would be through a section of the Agulhas National Park with which none of us were familiar. Again there were route options, but we decided to ride as a group so followed the sweeping gravel road into the Rietfontein section of the park. The sandy track made it tough going in places, but we revelled in the sight of the colourful ericas, curious ostrich, skittish steenbok and the views over the densely vegetated plains down to the sea. Verreaux’s eagles and jackal buzzard soared overhead and Sean pointed out some more specials, including Leucadendron laxum, the Bredasdorp conebush, and Leucadendron modestum, the rough leaf conebush. We'd planned the tour over a spring tide and when we took to the beach at Brandfontein, we were grateful for our foresight. The sand was hard and forgiving so we sped along, dodging occasional rocks and setting up great flocks of terns and other seabirds. Banks of pebbles forced all but the strongest riders off their bikes at times but we were in no rush.
The final section of corrugated gravel road between the park gates and Agulhas tested our saddle-sore bodies, but our spirits were lifted by the sight of the monument marking the southern-most tip of Africa. It had been an iconic journey that opened my eyes to the diverse treasures of the Agulhas Plain and the well-managed national park.
How to get there: Stanford is off the R43, about a two-hour drive south from Cape Town.
Difficulty: There are some technical sections, but these are optional, so the trail is suitable for experienced riders looking for a challenge as well as for moderately fit, intermediate riders wanting to enjoy the pristine landscape of an area little known to mountain bikers. Non-riders, and those needing a break from the saddle, can ride in the back-up vehicle and meet the riders at refreshment and overnight stops.
Duration and Distance: Two to four days, 75km to 130km depending on options selected.
Cost: From R3 450 a person for two nights’ accommodation plus all meals, local wine tastings in the evenings, route maps with a narrative and pre-loaded GPS track, national park and private traversing fees, a back-up mechanical/support service along the route as well as transfer of riders and bikes from Cape Agulhas back to the start. Wild Card members can take advantage of a special launch discount of 10% (R345) for the period August 2015 to end July 2016.
Bookings: 082-464-5115 www.fynbostrail.co.za
Extend your trip: Stay on for a day or two after the ride to explore the Agulhas National Park. www.sanparks.org/parks/agulhas. Accommodation options at the main rest camp include spacious and well-equipped two- and four-bed self-catering chalets and the four-bedroomed Lagoon Lodge, a restored historic cottage that enjoys a sublime location on a nearby rocky peninsula. You could also opt for the seclusion of historic Rietfontein homestead.
Hike: The Two Oceans Hiking Trail from the rest camp, the Rasperpunt Trail that starts at the Meisho Maru shipwreck and the Spookdraai trail which starts just outside the town of Agulhas are all delightful. Use your Wild Card to visit two CapeNature reserves nearby, De Hoop and De Mond. For more information, visit www.capenature.co.za.
Source: Wild Magazine