The Northern Drakensberg is a four-hour drive from Johannesburg. It used to be almost an hour longer, but then a key piece of road, the R74 between Harrismith and Bergville was repaired in 2015 and now, it’s faster and more scenic. And well worth the drive.
This was our third visit to the Northern Berg to ride and each time we find ourselves blown away by how unspoiled this area is. There’s seemingly endless kilometres of natural vegetation, which is mainly the local grass, shrubs and indigenous trees.
The benefit of riding here in the summer is that it’s so lush and green and makes photos and videos look incredible. The benefit of riding here in the winter is that you can see the singletrack easier and your rides are all dry. It can get quite muddy in places, although the drainage on the trails is very well managed.
We were keen to ride the new Alpine Traverse trail that had been established since our last visit. It’s more a link trail than a stand alone trail. Unless you’re staying at Montusi Mountain Lodge, which is where the trail actually starts. But it’s well worth it because it gets you into new areas of the region with your bike.
The beginning sees you snake your way through some indigenous forest before spitting you out on the south eastern slope of Montusi Mountain. The trailbuilders have cut singletrack that takes you along a fairly constant contour level around the southern end of the mountain and then along its northwestern slope, where you find yourself aiming for the Little Switzerland area.
Down to your left is Alpine Heath resort and this is obviously where the new trail got its name. At this point, you really cannot feel more in the mountains – hugging a mountain slope on your right, you have huge rock-face topped mountain in front and to your left. There’s nothing in your peripheral vision now that’s not mountain-styled…
And then you start to descend towards your left, heading in the direction of Alpine Heath then turning sharply towards the river as you make your way down a fast, still fairly rough in places downhill. You then follow the river for a few minutes before crossing it at a rocky crossing and then begin to climb up towards the Alpine Heath tar road. The climb isn’t too long, but it’s enough to get your legs and lungs challenged if you push it. Once at the road, you cross it and then head into another section of new trail for around 15 minutes before joining the Gypsies Bend trail where it intersects with the Acacia Meander trail. Here you can decide how you want to return based on how you are feeling.
You can head up to The Cavern resort to reach the legendary Grotto Trail, or you can do the Acacia Meander loop, or just start heading back to the beginning via Gypsies Bend.
CLOSEST TOWN/CITY: Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal
DISTANCE: 16km, but can be extended via longer returns
TYRES: The trail surface is largely hardpack and firm. Any tyre is actually fine here, but some sidewall protection is needed for the occasional sections of shale-type stone.
FACILITIES: There are toilets, showers and well-stocked café at the main trailhead at All-out Adventures. You can also ride from your accommodation venue if you’re overnighting in the area.
BEST THING: Riding in real mountains on land that’s not developed or too touristy.
WORST THING: Driving home.
BEST SEASON: All year round, but expect some muddy bits in summer and snow in winter!
GET THERE: The very specific directions from Johannesburg and Durban are on the website. Ideally, you should spend a few nights at one of the resorts in the area. It’s a bit far to go for just a day ride…
COST: R100 per person per day or R180 for up to five days (includes a colour trail map)
SECURE PARKING: Yes.
CONTACT: www.alloutadventures.co.za; 036 438 6242
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 39, 2016 and can be found on Zinio– All rights reserved