Pedal Pushing in Pondo
Words Stephen Smith Pictures Stephen Smith and Jessica Hopley
Pondoland, the most northerly section of the Wild Coast that stretches between the Mtata and the Mtamvuna rivers, is a land of wild cattle and wilder beauty, of waterfalls plunging into the Indian Ocean, of colonies of vultures nesting above undisturbed forest gorges, and beaches waiting to be ravaged by the bucket and spade brigade.
And thanks to these wandering bovines, the coastline is veined by trails or, as mountain bikers know them, single track. Literally hundreds of kilometres of the finest single track is at the disposal of the intrepid pedal pusher, interspersed with stretches of firm beaches, all made less of a ride in the park by estuaries that need to be crossed and cliffs that need to be circumnavigated.
Detour Trails, a Durban-based mountain biking adventure company, offers all sorts of pedalling trips, from cloud-scraping Lesotho to the Maluti Mountains of the Eastern Cape, and even day rides when you’re limited for time. Wherever the Detour team leads you, though, the focus is on fun, good food and, yes, time in the saddle.
When our group met at the Wild Coast Sun at the start of the Transkei, rain was being whipped around us by an unkind wind. The plan was to ride from there to Msikaba, a 50km or so ride to the Drifters tented camp, along the beaches and everything else in the way. But being a fair-weather cyclist, I decided to take the wussy way out and drive through the rain, rather than have the rain drive through me.
This particular pedal through Pondoland was designed as a family long weekend, which meant there was room for everyone, including the cyclists, their spouses and their children (and the ‘chickens’ among us). So a convoy of vehicles set off, planning to meet the bold (the foolish?) at Msikaba.
Now, the Wild Coast isn’t just a clever name – it’s a piece of coastline as treacherous as it is beautiful. The sun was already getting low in the sky when the weary cyclists arrived on the far side of the Msikaba River just over seven hours later, by which time the wiser lot had been relaxing and taking in the view for hours. The cyclists had been fording rivers – swimming their bikes across with them, clambering over rocks, sliding down hills and belting along the hard sand left behind by receding waves. And yet they only got grumpy when they found out we’d already had lunch. Getting them across the mouth of the river was a task in itself, since the tide was high and the wind was whipping it into frothy peaks. A few of us paddled to and fro, shuttling them across in small canoes, our own little Dunkirk, until a rubber duck and its owner came to our assistance.
Detour takes care of just about everything on all its trails, including amazing grub rustled up by Sarah Sawers, the Girl Friday who manages logistics, the kitchen and almost everything else. Rohan Surridge leads the trails, and therefore takes most of the glory, but it is very much a team effort. So when Rohan led his charges into the decked kitchen at camp, Sarah had a hot, hearty and delicious meal waiting for them. Well, what we had left for them, anyway.
Msikaba is rustic and remote, at the end of a long dirt road and on the banks of the Msikaba River. The camp itself, made up of timber decks and safari tents (all en suite), blends into the surroundings, hidden beneath milkwood trees and amatingulus (Carissa bispinosa) and almost invisible from the beach.
Msikaba is also surrounded by things to do and see, and the great thing about this particular tour is that time is made to see them, for everyone and not just the cyclists. Each morning we were given the options – one for cyclists and one for the rest – although it was often possible for everyone to meet up at the same end goal to spend time together.
In view of Msikaba and just across the river is the Mkambati Nature Reserve, home to a ruined hotel and lodge that we found out was once a leper colony and then a tuberculosis hospital. A few of us wandered about there and it was hard to believe that the government would choose a spot this beautiful, with those incredible views, for a place of infectious quarantine. Perhaps it was a moment of compassion from some nameless bureaucrat that made this decision, hoping to give people torn from their homes some small consolation.
Cyclists and walkers met up at the Superbowl, a luscious indigenous forest enclosed by a semi-circular amphitheatre of cliffs. A waterfall cascades down the centre, competing with thousands of birds for your ears’ attention, before the river winds lazily down to the ocean.
A colony of Cape Vultures (Gyps coprotheres) has made its home on the cliffs of the Msikaba River, and if you have sundowners on the plateau above them you can watch the birds spiral down from the thermals before alighting on their nest with far more grace than you’d think of a vulture.
Another outing was to Waterfall Bluff, the most spectacular of the dozens of waterfalls along the Pondoland coast. It’s close enough to be ridden to from Msikaba, or even walked to, but an easier way to do it is to drive to Luphuthana, the location of another Drifters camp, on another river a little further south. A 4x4 is needed, mainly for the extra ground clearance and the seasonal mud, but from Luphuthana it is a picuresque walk or cycle along cattle trails, around aloes and on the edge of sheer drops into the ocean. Waves pound against the rocks sending huge sprays into the air, while noteworthy fishing spots give access to deep water and all that lurks within.
Finally, rounding a corner, we could see the Mlambomkulu River plunge 60 metres into the sea. After wiggling down to the base we felt the spray on our face, as we kept an eye out for elvers (baby eels) in the little pools.
Not far from this is the beautiful Cathedral Rock, rising out of the ocean on buttresses of rock. It’s a beautiful, wild sight, and if the roads to this part of the world were better we’d have to share it with far more than the handful of people who had made the same long walk.
The final afternoon was spent on the beach and in the sea before a relaxing evening around the fire – family time with no mention of a bike. The next morning, however, the rivers needed to be forded, the rocks clambered over, the hills slid down and the single track negotiated, hopefully with a good deal of fast, hard sand thrown in, on the ride out of the wild.
Source: Country Life