Mountain biking. Look at that first word again. Yep, m-o-u-n-t-a-i-n. How often have you ridden your bike some real mountains? Okay Western Cape readers are spoilt, but the rest of us… Well, we don’t have many mountains near us. Which is why we we’re pleased to see the increasing number of trails being developed in the Drakensberg. We spent a few days in the Northern Berg and, to be honest, didn’t want to leave… – Sean Badenhorst
There are 100km of mountain biking trails in the Northern Berg. Do you know how long it takes to create 100km of mountain bike trails? It takes a long, long, long time and it takes commitment and knowledge and patience. And Chris Mecklenborg has all of that. He looks like he’s in his early 30s, but he turns 50 this year. Must be the fresh mountain air… American-born and bred, Chris and his South African wife Loretta run a business called All-out Adventures, which offers a range of adrenaline-stimulating activities. Mountain biking is one of them – own bike recommended (they do have some bikes for hire).
Mountain biking as an activity, well the creation of the trails in order to ride there, has taken up most of Chris’s time and energy. Way more than any of the other adventure activities. And that, people, is why you should go and ride there.
“Any time someone buys a mountain biking pass, I get a little excited,” says Chris. “It’s been a labour of love building and maintaining these trails. It’s taken years to get them to where they are now.
“I love mountain biking and this has been a passion project because at this stage, percentage wise, the mountain biking activity brings in only a tiny bit of the total income at All-out Adventures. A sponsor would be great, but more people riding would be rewarding,” he smiled.
Predominantly singletrack, the All-out Adventures mountain bike trails take you through the valley, along the banks of the Tugela River and up into the base of the big mountains at the base of the Amphitheatre, one of the Drakensberg’s most famous features.
There are a few trail options, each named and colour-graded according to the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) recommendations. This is the Drakensburg, so even the tamest, shortest trail contains some decent gradient. It is big mountain country after all.
The primary trails are:
- Gypsey’s Bend: 10km, ideal for beginners
- Montusi Gorge: 17km, ideal for intermediate
- Trilby Trail: 15km, technical, ideal for more experienced
- Grotto Trail with Trilby return: 25km, technical, ideal for more experienced
- Grotto Trail with Du Toit’s return: 20km, technical, ideal for more experienced.
You can string a few of them together and, if you want add more distance, time or variety, you can include the secondary trails. These trails are not as well ridden in and aren’t marked. We rode some of the secondary trails and loved being able to combine well-maintained defined singletrack with rougher, more natural terrain.
You simply can’t beat the variety of the trails here. The Gypsey’s Bend trail is largely flat along the Tugela River basin, but it twists and turns constantly, giving you spectacular 360-degree views to appreciate, if you’re riding slowly; or keeping you constantly concentrated, if you’re pinning it!
The Montusi Gorge trail takes you along the ridge high above the Tugela River before dropping you down to river level to a cable crossing to get to the other side, which is quite a novelty.
The Grotto Trail, in our opinion the signature trail for the area, takes you along the river valley and gradually upwards, deep into the mountain. The attention to detail is impressive. Instead of sending you along a piece of tar road for a couple of kilometres, Chris has created singletrack parallel to the road but has had to build a lot of bridges (all very well made) to ensure the flow isn’t interrupted. If it’s a hot day, it’s worth a stop for a drink in the shade at The Cavern, the original accommodation venue in this area, before pedalling higher up into the mountain to the furthest point of the Grotto Trail. From here you start to head back to the trailhead at All-out Adventures. Instead of dropping you back down rapidly, Chris has thoughtfully taken the trail along a contour path above the valley that’s just breathtaking. For experienced mountain bikers, the Grotto Trail is among the finest mountain trails you’ll find in South Africa. It’s by no means flat, with dips and rises coming at you constantly. It’s by no means smooth, with stones and ruts and some sloping rock faces keeping you 100% focussed. After some 25 minutes of this piece of heaven, the trail curves away to the south and, after a bit of steady ascending and descending, lines you up for the long, exciting descent. You can either choose Du Toit’s Trail descent, which pitches you back down to the valley or you can continue along the Trilby Trail descent, which is longer and which takes you over some small climbs with magnificent views of the nearby Amphitheatre to the south, before dropping you down to the Tugela River for the return to All-out Adventures.
Our 56km ride on this route took just over 3 hours and included over 700 metres of ascent (and descent of course), making it a truly challenging, stimulating trail in every sense.
There’s a race here each year called the Royal Drakensberg Challenge that incorporates most of the primary trails and some of the secondary trails. If racing is more your thing, we’d recommend it. It’s on April 6 and 7 this year.
We’re planning to return for a TREAD Destination Experience – three days of riding, skills tuition and relaxing in one of the most beautiful places you can imagine… Mountain biking in the mountains. It just seems right (keep an eye on the magazine for details in an upcoming edition).
This isn’t a place you just pop out to ride at, unless you live nearby that is. And not many do. It’s a place you go to for a few days. Take a day off work and make an extended weekend trip. It’s around four hours drive from Johannesburg/Pretoria and three hours from Durban. So accommodation is important. The great thing about the All-out Adventures trails is that they either pass through – or are in close proximity to – a range of establishments, from the basic Amphitheatre Backpacker Lodge to the very comfortable Montusi Mountain Lodge. We stayed at Montusi, which is a classy resort with garden suites and self-catering cottages. Check out www.montusi.co.za
Nothing worse than taking your family to a cool trail-riding destination and there’s very little for them to do. No such problem here. Besides the usual activities at most of the establishments, such as swimming pools, tennis courts, horse riding, fly fishing, golf etc, All-out Adventures is a family-orientated activity destination in itself that caters for all ages. And they have a restaurant with real coffee! Check out www.alloutadventures.co.za
Other Drakensberg mountain bike trails;
Central Berg, Mountain Splendour
Riding: There’s 10km of purpose-built trails on the property of Mountain Splendour – it’s a hilly 10km and it’s mostly singletrack. And it’s fun for experienced riders, albeit it quite short. But it’s a real challenge for novices and intermediate riders. Experienced or fit riders can arrange a longer, tougher guided ride with the Mountain Splendour staff, who are no slouches on a mountain bike. They’ll take you along some seriously challenging trails to the southeast of Mountain Splendour.
Accommodation: There are some real luxurious hotel resorts in the Central Berg, but we liked the real feel of the mountains that come with camping at Mountain Splendour. It’s not camping as you might know it though. Luxury tents with real beds are available for those that want to still have some creature comforts.
Annual race: Mountain Splendour Mania
Southern Berg, Sani Spoors
Riding: A network of mountain biking-specific trails is being developed at Sani Spoors, less than 10km south of Underberg. Currently, the network comprises seven separate rides, ranging in technical difficulty and distance from 3.3km to 21.6km. The trails incorporate a variety of terrain, including river bank, wattle forest, pine forest and cliff top. All with spectacular mountain views.
Accommodation: There are many options in the area, ranging from many self-catering venues guest houses to the luxurious Drakensberg Gardens Hotel and Spa.
Annual race: Drak MTB X-Perience – date to be confirmed; Sani Transfronteir Epic (includes climbing and descending Sani Pass) – date to be confirmed.
Originally published in TREAD Issue 22, 2013 – All rights reserved