I had done the Bezhoek Extreme mountain bike race in 2019 and decided it was the toughest race I’d ever done. The route simply threw everything at me – and more.  So why would I be taking my wife back there to ride when I know she likes the enjoyment of riding, not the suffering. Here’s why…

Originally published 22 January 2021. Updated 29 June 2022.

By Sean Badenhorst

The Bezhoek Extreme race was designed to be as tough as possible. And it was. The route seemed to never relent. It took me an hour longer than I expected on the long stage and that hour felt like a day. Here’s my account of the hardest race I have ever done.

The Bezhoek Extreme event was also developed to bring mountain bikers to explore the Bezhoek Nature Reserve, which is privately owned and which covers an area of 4500 hectares or 45 square kilometres. It’s a large piece of land and is rare in that it comprises all three of the biomes found in Mpumalanga – grassland, savannah and forest. At around 1450 metres, the altitude is a little lower than Johannesburg. There’s a huge diversity of animal, bird and plant species.

Because of the government’s reaction to Covid-19, the Bezhoek Extreme never took place in 2020 or 2021 and looks unlikely to happen again. That doesn’t mean it’s closed for mountain biking though. And we were only too thrilled to spend three days and two nights at Bezhoek. Here’s why we feel it should be on your to-experience list.

It’s exploration and adventure

Most of the riding we city dwellers are exposed to is on familiar local trails parks. While we appreciate and enjoy riding at these, we know the trails really well now and there’s no real sense of adventure left on most of our local rides. By heading out to Bezhoek, which has over 100km of marked trails for mountain biking, we were immediately filled with those senses of anticipation and excitement as well as the possibility of taking a wrong turn and missing breakfast.

It’s not that far, but far enough

Our general rule is that if a place is more than three hour’s drive from home, it’s too far for a weekend away. Then it requires at least 3-4 night’s stay to make it worthwhile. Bezhoek is handily located a two-hour’s drive from Johannesburg and slightly less from Pretoria. Two night’s stay is worth the drive, although you can obviously stay longer if you want to.

Located just outside Middelburg, Bezhoek is on the highveld of the Mpumalanga province. But it’s nestled on the banks of the Olifants and Klein Olifants Rivers, which actually converge on the reserve. There are some incredible riverside features including massive cliff faces and lush indigenous vegetation. There’s also sections of slab rock, savannah grassland and one of the largest natural collections of cycads. It looks a lot different to Gauteng and gives you a real feeling of escape from familiarity.

There’s loads of wildlife

As with most wilderness areas, there’s leopard at Bezhoek, but that’s the only member of the Big Five, so riding mountain bikes there is without any external risks.

We’re more fascinated by the big animals (like eland, kudu, sable and giraffe), but our game guide was mindful to point out and educate us on a range of wildlife, including ants, monitor lizards, small buck, various birds, grasshoppers and plants. During our stay we had two afternoon game drives, which were included in the package. We also saw a lot of wildlife while riding too. It’s wild wildlife, not like some of the animals you see on the Gauteng MTB trails, so there is a bit more of an element of excitement when you do encounter them while riding and they are quite skittish because they’re not familiar with bicycles.

There’s amazing riding variety

There are seven marked mountain bike trails at Bezhoek. Like most South African trails, they’re ‘colour-named’ and they range from predictable gravel roads to steep, rocky singletrack. If you’re into game-viewing by bicycle, then the White and Orange routes are going to allow you plenty of time to look around as these are almost entirely on gravel roads. But if you choose the other routes – Green, Yellow, Blue, Grey and Red – a fair chunk of your riding time will be used to look at what’s ahead of you, as they incorporate jeeptrack and singletrack.

There’s a fair amount of gradient at Bezhoek so don’t underestimate the distances. Here are details of each route:

  • Red Route: 60km with 1387m of ascent
  • Grey Route: 45km with 1037m of ascent
  • Orange Route: 37km with 826m of ascent
  • Blue Route: 30km with 725m of ascent
  • Green Route: 28km with 483m of ascent
  • Yellow Route: 18km with 475m of ascent
  • White Route: 17km with 305m of ascent

There is a ‘short-cut’ option on the Red, Grey and Blue routes up a steep ascent called Leopard Climb that eliminates a technical 7km section. It’s important to know that some of the trails are truly gnarly and require decent levels of fitness, strength, commitment and skill, with rocks, roots and slab rock all making for stimulating riding for accomplished mountain bikers.

It’s camping, but not the survival type

The accommodation is at the Bezhoek Tented Camp. I say accommodation because even though you stay in a tent, it’s not really camping. If you’re used to five-star accommodation, this may be a notch or two down for you, but it’s far from survival-style camping.

Each tent has proper carpets, beds and bedding, electricity and an en-suite shower/toilet with hot water. If you’ve ever done a South African stage race, this is luxury by comparison.

Cost: The pricing when we stayed was R1000 per person sharing per night, which included three meals, en-suite accommodation and daily game drives, but visit their site for more information here.

Other observations:

  • Currently, Bezhoek doesn’t offer a day-pass for mountain biking.
  • We took our 15-year-old son along. He loves riding, so was fine. However, if you have small kids, it’s probably best to leave them at home.
  • There are nine luxury tents that sleep two in each. So, a group numbering up to 18 can be accommodated. We think this is a great way to get a riding escape with friends or fellow club members into your schedule.
  • There is a small swimming pool and a communal lounge area with board games. There’s coffee and tea available at all times and each tent has a small fridge as well as coffee/tea making facilities.
  • There is electricity with plugs in all the tents.
  • The food is simple, but tasty and the portion sizes are generous!
  • The afternoon game drives are highly recommended and are included your accommodation package.
  • You can drive a regular sedan to and from Tented Adventures, Bezhoek. The gravel roads are in good condition.

For more information on Bezhoek Nature Reserve and the tented accommodation, click here.