Ride on the Wild Side
Words by Fiona McIntosh, Pics by Jon Ivins, Sarah Drew, Fiona McIntosh, Shaen Adey.
‘Pool noodles’, I mused, studying the kit list. ‘What the hell are pool noodles?’ Wild Coast MTB Adventure organiser, Sarah Drew, enlightened me. “I put a piece of foam (cut from a pool noodle) under my seat so that when I have to portage my bike the seat rails don’t cut into my shoulder. Strapping foam to your bike also helps flotation on river crossings.”
So I dutifully bought pool noodles and by midday on the first day was grateful for her advice. We had been on and off our bikes all morning – lifting them over jagged rocks and small gullies, pushing when our legs no longer carried us up the steep slopes, wading with them through rivers. This was no ordinary cycle tour – foam-padded bicycles were the way to go.
With its endless empty beaches, rolling hills and quaint charm, the Wild Coast has long been a haunt of avid mountain bikers. The Imana Wild Ride, one of South Africa’s oldest and most established MTB stage races, is firmly on the to-do list for most competitive riders. But places on this four-day classic are like gold dust so it’s hardly surprising that a number of operators run regular tours along the route, catering for riders of different levels of fitness.
Two of the most popular are the 190km four-day, three-night Ride Wild Tour, which follows the same route as the Imana Wild Ride from Kei Mouth to Umngazi River Bungalows, and Active Escape’s 140km four-day, four-night Wild Coast MTB Adventure from Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay (with an option to continue for a couple more days to Umngazi). While the former is geared for fit and technically sound riders (and, of course, Imana Wild Ride aspirants) the latter is more leisurely and offers more time for swimming, chilling and taking in the spectacular landscapes, and is popular with social riders and families.
A non-competitive rider, I opted for the more relaxed tempo of the Wild Coast MTB Adventure on my first mountain bike tour of this coastline.
But as I was soon to discover, ‘more relaxed’ certainly didn’t mean easy. There’s no better way to appreciate the dramatic cliff faces, jutting headlands, natural waterfalls and deserted beaches of the Wild Coast than from the saddle, but this is not a tour for softies. For much of the way you ride on beaches or along narrow animal paths. There are rivers to ford, small cliffs where you have to shoulder your bike, and patches of soft sand that make riding impossible.
You don’t need to be a particularly technical rider to enjoy it, but grit is essential!
One of the big attractions of the tour is that it’s a total immersion in the remarkably remote, former homeland of the Transkei. As you wind your way from clifftop to sandy bay, across grassy plateaux and up the forest tracks of this untamed coastline, you have plenty of time to stop and interact with the colourful, friendly villagers you meet along the way. The hospitality in the Wild Coast hotels and guest houses is legendary, making this a tour you won’t forget.
Our first day of riding, from the popular seaside resort of Morgan Bay to the pretty little haven of Mazeppa Bay, was a good introduction to what was to come. We cruised to the small fishing village of Kei Mouth where a motorised pont provided safe passage across the wide, muddy waters of the Kei River, before a short, sharp climb on a gravel road that opened our lungs to the fresh sea air. After a thrilling descent on a grassy 4x4 track down to the beach, we rode past two of the Wild Coast ‘old dames’, Seagulls and Trennery’s hotels, to the Qholora estuary for the first ankle-wetting of the day. Timing is everything on this tour. You need to ride at low tide not just to be able to wade the rivers but to take advantage of the hard sand.
A little further down the beach lies the rusting hulk of the Jacaranda – a Greek freighter that ran aground in 1971. Presenting an iconic Wild Coast scene, her rusting skeleton was a fantastic photo opportunity and a welcome break for our already weary legs.
From the Jacaranda it was onto a sandy 4x4 track that took us across the next small headland and down to the Kobonqaba River, which, with its fairly wide mouth, required a waist-deep portage. The pool noodles were coming into their own.
For the next three days we covered varied terrain, riding along the beaches and cattle paths for most of the way but, around Wavecrest Hotel, we left the beach to ride the inland tracks that weave in and out of dune vegetation.
There were some challenging sections of grassy hill climbs and steep descents, and some entertaining river crossings in the local ‘ferry’. We stopped to swim when we fancied, wandered out onto rocky platforms to watch local women harvesting mussels and other fruits of the sea, chilled out on gorgeous empty beaches and rode through thick indigenous forest alive with birds. It was a magical experience, and at the end of the day we were spoilt rotten with soft beds, views to die for and seafood feasts.
The final night of any tour is always a party, but we were particularly proud to complete this one. It had been a tough tour that demanded stamina, a sense of humour and an adventurous spirit. If you have those in abundance you’ll love it.
Up to it?
The route is reasonably technical with some short but steep hills, some tricky sections along cattle paths and long sections of beach riding so a reasonable level of fitness and mountain biking skills is required.
Riders with a good level of strength, fitness and an adventurous mindset enjoy this tour most. Novice mountain bikers can cope but will end up walking the trickier sections and spending fairly long days in the saddle. Endurance counts far more than speed on this type of tour, where a fair amount of time is spent portaging and getting on and off your bike. You should certainly have some mountain bike experience but technical skills are a bonus rather than a requirement. Riding on the Wild Coast is about time in the saddle. The daily distances may seem easy but you’d be surprised how low your average speeds are – although this could also have something to do with the many photo opportunities en route. Vehicle support is only possible at the overnight spots so once you’re on the trail you are committed for that day, but you can have rest days or travel in the back-up vehicle to the next stop.
Looking for an easier introduction? Try the Grindrod Bank Umngazi Pondo Pedal, a four-day MTB ride centred around Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa, which will take place from 5 – 9 June 2013. www.pondopedal.com
Source: Country Life