We’re fortunate to have such a variety of mountain bike trails in South Africa. From inner-city mountain bike parks to remote wilderness trails, from free-to-ride trails on public land to privately owned mountain biking gems. Since we launched TREAD in 2009, our crew has ridden most of South Africa’s mountain bike trails. Here’s a look at our Number 1, a KwaZulu-Natal haven, in our TREAD Top Trails of 2020.

Karkloof Country Club

Photo credit: Karkloof Country Club

Location: Karkloof/Howick, KwaZulu-Natal.

Best suited for: Intermediate and Experienced riders.

What we love about it: The flow. Only those that have ridden these trails will understand the real meaning – and feeling – of trail flow. We have encountered passionate mountain bikers throughout South Africa (mostly in the Western Cape, to be honest), who think their local trails are the ultimate in terms of flow. While this is great in terms of local support, it’s not really true. And unless you have travelled to Karkloof and ridden those trails properly, you cannot make any claims like this without expecting to be corrected by anyone whose mountain biking life has been enhanced by the Karkloof trails.

The trails: Karkloof is confirmation that you don’t need mountains for great mountain biking, you just need hills. And a trail-builder that knows how to stitch the ascents and descents together in a way that makes you feel like you’re eating your favourite ice-cream and can’t wait to go back for more.

Hylton Turvey, a mountain biker that grew up in Karkloof, is the reason for the legendary flow on these trails. He understands the area better than anyone else and while he’s expanded his trailbuilding services to build trails in other parts of the country, his finest work remains at Karkloof, where he still lives…

Photo credit: Karkloof Country Club

Until recently the Karkloof and Howick trails, which are basically next to each other, were run separately. It’s all under one management now and that’s a good thing because Howick’s trails have their own character too. There’s flow, but not Karkloof flow. But there are more challenging sections, where rocks and roots force you to make quick decisions and offer more skilled riders some real stimulation.

The Karkloof trails are split into two sections, the southern section, which is the biggest section, on Sappi-owned land and a smaller northern section on Mondi-owned land. Overall though, the Karkloof trails fall under Sappi as the responsible landowner. And this is great because Sappi is a big supporter of mountain biking in general and mountain biking on its land in particular.

There are no obvious fences between the Sappi and Mondi land at Karkloof. But the trails on the Sappi land begin in glorious earnest almost from the trailhead itself at Karkloof Country Club, while the best of the trails on the Mondi land require a good bit of time and energy in climbing to the highest ground towards the west, before basically surfing your way back down some of the most memorable singletrack you will ever experience. These are known as the Outback Trails because they essentially head out and come back.

Much of the land is used for forestry, so a lot of the routes weave through forest singletrack or on forest roads. There are some open sections of grassland and a number of farmland too.

There’s a new section of trails called the Milk Trails which are located on a local dairy farm, Denleigh. These trails are only open when the forest fire hazard is high and the regular trails are closed.

Photo credit: Jacques Marais/Sony / Sappi

Although you can ride all day and not cover all the trails, there are seven marked routes at Karkloof Country Club catering for the majority of mountain bikers as follows:

  • 3km – Beginner with 19m of ascent
  • 15km – Intermediate with high percentage of singletrack and 332m of ascent
  • 20km – Beginner/Intermediate with high percentage of forest roads and jeep track and 336m of ascent
  • 23km – Intermediate with a high percentage of singletrack and 449m of ascent
  • 37km – Intermediate/Experience with a high percentage of singletrack and 690m of ascent
  • 55km – Experienced with a high percentage of singletrack and over 1000m of ascent.

The only events/races held at Karkloof each year are some KZN MTB Enduro Series rounds and the Sappi Karkloof Festival, which incorporates a variety of mountain biking disciplines over three days. It acts as a fundraiser for the Karkloof trails network. The 2020 CSA SA Marathon Champs were meant to be held at Karkloof, but were cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown measures.

Photo credit: Karkloof Country Club

Signage: The signage is generally very good, as long as you’re vigilant. Out-of-towners can ride quite confidently without fear of getting lost, but make sure before you start your ride exactly which route you’re tackling. During normal opening hours, there’s a big screen at the trailhead with all the routes and maps for you to examine.

Grading: The Karkloof Country Club trails use the IMBA Grading System with appropriate trail signage. The trails and marked routes are also all uploaded to Trailforks, where the trails are mostly Blue, with some Green and a few Black. You can access the Karkloof trails here: https://www.trailforks.com/region/karkloof-country-club/routes/ According to Trailforks, there are a total of 416 recognised mountain bike trail segments covering a total distance of 507km.

Off the bike: You’re in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, which is packed with touristy things to do. However, once you’ve spent a morning or an afternoon riding the Karkloof trails, it’s unlikely you’ll want to leave. If you do need a break from riding through, you can find a lot of cool off-the-bike stuff here: https://midlandsmeander.co.za

Summary: Riding the Karkloof Trails changes you as a mountain biker. Every other trail you ride thereafter gets compared to Karkloof, either subconsciously or loudly and enthusiastically, over a cold beer with your mates. No matter how many times you go and ride the Karkloof trails, when you leave, a small part of you stays behind, but it’s a fair trade because when you leave, you take part of Karkloof trails away with you. In your soul.

Cost: A day pass is R80 for adults or R30 for pensioners (over 65) and youngsters (6-18 years). Kids under 6 ride free.

Security rating: 4.5/5

 Website: https://www.karkloofclub.co.za/day-visitors-application/

Photo credit: Karkloof Country Club

Note: The TREAD TOP TRAILS 2020 feature is subjective. If you feel we are missing great trails from our top 15, please email Sean Badenhorst on sean@treadmtb.co.za  with your suggestions.

Here’s our TREAD Top 15 Trails for 2020:

Number 15 Big Red Barn, Midrand, Gauteng http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020/

Number 14 The Spruit, Randburg/Sandton, Gauteng http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-2/

Number 13: Tokai, Cape Town, Western Cape http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-3/

Number 12: Cradle Moon, Johannesburg, Gauteng http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-12/

Number 11: Buffelsdrift, Pretoria, Gauteng http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-11/

Number 10: Northern Farm, Johannesburg, Gauteng http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-10/

Number 9: Holla Trails, Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-9/

Number 8: Giba Gorge MTB Park, Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-8/

Number 7: Paul Cluver & Oak Valley, Western Cape http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-7/

Number 6: Stellenbosch, Western Cape http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-6/

Number 5: Banhoek Conservancy, Western Cape http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-5/

Number 4: Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club, Western Cape http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-4/

Number 3: Drakensberg Trails, KwaZulu-Natal http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-3/

Number 2: Jonkershoek MTB Trails, Western Cape http://www.treadmtb.co.za/tread-top-trails-2020-number-2/