42. Karkloof Trails
Anyone for snakes and ladders? Bicycling rolls the dice with TIB professional cyclist and KZN local Andrew Hill, ramping, jumping and railing through the pristine trail network of Karkloof.
We’ve heard a lot about the Karkloof MTB Trails, particularly from KZN ‘expats’ who’ve made the Mother City their new home. Even when we show them the very best trails the Western Cape has to offer, the conversation almost always ends with the following line: ‘They’re awesome – but have you tried Karkloof?’ Well, we’re here – and we’ve roped in TIB pro rider Andrew Hill to guide us through this pine-tree-lined playground of vert and dirt.
From the sharp scent of fresh pine needles to the sensation of speed accentuated by the peripheral blurring of trees, nothing beats riding through a forest at full chat. Perhaps I’m a little partisan, coming from the Western Cape – after all, many of its trails (Jonkershoek, Tokai, Welvanpas, Grabouw…) have a similar feel, and Des and I feel at home here as a result. And we’re panting again – sorry guys, but 1 150m above sea level for a Capetonian is pretty rough. Poor Andrew. He’s had to put up with our whingeing for the past three days already…
The vistas around the Kwazulu-natal Midlands are truly sensational. While very different to the mountainous backdrops of the Western Cape, the lush green hills – many of which stretch as far as the eye can see – are steep, green and inviting; just the way we like them. The trails are about an hour’s drive from Durban, in the beautiful Karkloof Valley in the Midlands. The vast Sappi plantations are home to an abundance of trails, and the commitment of local mountain bikers and head trail-builder Hylton Turvey has culminated in the world-class trail facility you see here.
Each route starts and finishes at the Karkloof Country Club, and is graded in accordance with IMBA’S guidelines. While there’s a plethora of options and routes to choose from, today’s ride will be taken
predominantly from the Outback trails, which feature in the Karkloof Classic Marathon race.
There’s no time to settle into a rhythm, as Campbell’s Climb begins almost immediately – a 4km beast of a hill, complete with six per cent average gradient. While it flattens out towards the top, it’s the initial transition that takes a toll on both legs and lungs. Andrew’s making it look all too easy (he is a pro, after all), and proceeds to talk us through the route, pointing out the different fauna and flora that categorise this region.
Desmond is cruising too; but he has some supernatural help, from a Specialized Levo e-bike. Lucky bugger. Andrew assures us the reward waiting at the top will far outweigh the effort it’s taken us to get to this point. I sure hope so – I’m pretty poked from the previous three days’ worth of trail riding around KZN, and am secretly hoping we’ll stop sometime soon. (More whingeing again, yes.) Des has to be a telepathist, because he’s stopped, and taken out his camera. Usually, that means he either wants to shoot, or take a break – on this occasion, we’ll just pretend he read my mind…
We bag a good couple of shots at the top, and take some time to admire the spectacular view before hitting the good stuff. Looking into the distance, you can see the infamous Lebanon climb on other side of the valley, home to a famous descent called Bat Out of Hell. Hmm, that sounds pretty fast – but we’re headed to something that’s a lot more scary-sounding: the Gauntlet...
The downhill singletracks are super-fast and flowing. On our list today is Jewitt’s Jive, the Enduro SP2 segment, the Gauntlet, and Sahara. While there’s nothing too technical in the way of obstacles, there are rocks, lips, roots, and the odd jump (you know – the usual foresty stuff), but nothing too intimidating. Besides, there are various line options available for those not too keen on attempting the gnarlier lines.
Compared to Giba Gorge, the riding here is fairly straightforward. But you do need to be fairly adept at negotiating rocks and small drops – this is KZN, after all, and the riders around here are generally of a higher skill set than those in other provinces. Thankfully for us the trails are all fairly dry, so the chance we’ll slip on wet or moss-covered rocks and roots is pretty unlikely.
I’d heard a lot about the Gauntlet, and had been warned to be cautious when tackling it. A veritable singletrack rollercoaster, it
snakes furiously, dipping down the side of a gorge over a series of bridges and berms before corkscrewing and dropping into a trail transition. It looks pretty intimidating, I must admit, especially since it’s not in very good condition at the moment – the corners are rutted, washed out and loose.
But Andrew makes it look ridiculously easy, apexing every corner and shifting his weight around to maintain equilibrium. My attempt is a far less precise affair, as I wrestle with both the bike and gravity in some awkward-looking manoeuvres. Job done, though… from here on, it’s an undulating 8km ride back to the car, via the forestry roads that link the various levels of the plantation.
“There’s at least 120km of trail network here,” chirps Andrew. “It’s a pity we’ve only traversed about a quarter of what’s officially available. But we’ve done some of the good stuff.” Looking around, it’s hard not to be astonished by the sheer size of this place. The plantations are massive, never-ending, and the distant trails and climbs flow through the hills like a river, through interlocking spurs.
The forestry roads give us a chance to reflect on a great day’s riding, and to take in more of the beauty we find ourselves in. The people here are friendly, and horses and buck roam these parts freely – oblivious to the hustle and bustle of big-city life.
While we didn’t have enough time to sample all of the magic on offer, what we did ride was sublime – the work that’s gone into building such superb trails is simply staggering. Our suggestion for those keen on sampling these trails is to make a weekend of it, with the whole family. Karkloof is located in the heart of the Midlands Meander, so there are ample accommodation options available, to suit all budgets. Get in there!
Karkloof has become the Mecca of mountain biking for a lot of Kznbased riders. There are some special sections that traverse the threatened mistbelt grasslands, home to many ‘red’ data species. – ANDREW HILL, TIB PRO ATHLETE